It’s early spring in a forest in southern Ontario. Since most of our trees are deciduous, there’s a lot of light hitting the forest floor, and it’s still a month or more until maple, beech, cherry and a few other species spread their leafy umbrella and plunge the interior into deep shade. With the rising temperatures of spring, it’s an opportunity not to be missed.
Bulbs lying dormant through the winter begin to sprout, racing for the surface. Soon, the growing tips of Wild Leeks, Trout Lilies, Blue Cohosh, Trillium and many others peek out from among the orderly mess of last year’s leaves.
These are the spring ephemeral wildflowers, and they are in a hurry. Fully grown well before tree leaf-out, they soak up the sun and attract pollinators before the life-giving direct sunlight on the forest floor is lessened by their giant neighbours.
Wild Leeks (Alium tricoccum) are my favourites. Pick a tiny bit, rub it between finger and thumb, and you’ll know why they are sometimes called Wild Garlic. The story goes that, long ago, on the way to school kids would chew on a leek leaf or two so their breath would be enough to send them home (to their pleasure!). And – true story – Chicago most likely derived its name from the Miami-Illinois First Nations word for Wild Leek (“Shekaakwa”). If you’re from Chicago, you are from the “place of strong-smelling wild onions (wild leeks).”
Not the same, of course, as domestic garden leeks (they are closely related), Wild Leeks are delicacies and are usually called ramps when used for cooking. The leaves and bulbs are great in salads and soups, but of course should be sampled lightly rather than harvested. Over-harvesting in Quebec prompted a ban on large-scale picking in 1995, anyone caught with more than 50 in their possession faces a minimum $500 fine. One illegal picker was apprehended with 7,829 individual plants; he was fined $10,000. Quebec police report that sometimes the leeks are stuffed into (get this) a hockey bag. A black market in wild leeks smuggled into Ontario has ensued, as a single plant (bulb and leaves) may be sold for up to $1.00. Since Wild Leeks spread slowly, picking more than 5% of a patch is considered by many to be unsustainable.
Next time you encounter some of these delicious harbingers of spring , take just a bit, maybe fingernail-size, rub it, inhale its garlic/onion aroma, chew it, swallow it and enjoy the taste, unless, that is, you are on your way to school.