The use of the ramp plant (Allium tricoccum) dates back to some of the earliest eras in North American History. A cousin to the leek, onion and garlic plant, ramps have played an important role in food culture and traditional medicine for ages. While many consider them most popular in the Appalachian culture, their roots actually date back to some of the earliest times in Native American History. Native Americans first discovered ramps as they witnessed bears forage on them after coming out of hibernation. Inspired by what they’d seen, tribes all over the Eastern United States began seeking them out.
According to Daniel Moerman’s ‘Native American Ethnobotany’, it was common for The Cherokee to boil or fry the ramps, while those of The Iroquois were known to simply season them with salt and pepper. Many Native American tribes also dried and stored parts of the plant for the colder months, as ramps contain important vitamins and minerals that are scarcer to find in the winter and can help bolster the health of those suffering from illnesses.
Because of their high vitamin and mineral content, Native Americans valued them for more than just their culinary benefits. The Cherokees consumed parts of the plant as an “herbal tonic” to treat colds and extracted juice to treat earaches. The use of its extracted juice from all parts of the ramp plant was common amongst tribes. The Chippewa used it to induce vomiting and the Iroquois used it to treat intestinal worms (Moerman). The juice extracted from the bulbs were also known to treat insect stings and consuming them was even thought to cleanse your blood.
In the 17th century, there was such an abundant growth of wild ramps near Lake Michigan and its surrounding waters, one of America’s largest cities today was named after it. Chicago was named by Local Native Tribes, as the native word shikaakwa (chicagou) refers to the “smelly onions” that grew all over the Chicago area and its watershed, now known as the Chicago River.
Native Americans across the country still continue to use ramps in their traditional cuisines and nutritional practices. Ramps have also become a highly sought-after plant in the culinary world, as their bold onion-garlic flavor is adaptable in numerous cooking styles.