Every spring, I look forward to the annual ritual of picking wild leeks. For some, trudging through the woods looking at a carpet of dead leaves and swatting swarms of tiny blackflies is far from appealing. I love it anyway.
Wild leeks (also known as wild onions, wild garlic, ramps, or allium tricoccum) can be found in parts of deciduous forests of eastern Ontario and Quebec. They are one of the first spring plants of this region and they emerge with rich green vitality through the brown leaf litter of the forest floor around the same time as the trilliums. These leaves provide us with a much-needed infusion of colour after months of colourless, cold winter.
This striking green stage is brief but crucial. The wild leek plants have only a few weeks to access sunlight before the full canopy of leaves emerges in the trees above them. After this point the leaves will die down so that the plants can flower and then seed. However, unlike most of our traditional planting experiences, wild leeks take several years to progress from a seed to a plant that is mature and big enough to selectively harvest. This is important to remember, and partly why the plant is considered at risk in many regions. Once a patch of wild leeks is over-picked, re-establishing it takes years and ultimately may not be successful if the climate and landscape have changed too much.
These spring delicacies have been over-harvested for years, unfortunately. Plus, woodland habitats are rapidly disappearing to make way for development and agricultural purposes. Since 1995, Quebec has recognized that the plants are threatened and vulnerable and enforces a law to protect them. Pickers who flout or ignore this law can face a hefty fine. Recently a picker was charged $1,600 for possessing 300 bulbs (CBC News 2023). The limit is 200 grams: about fifty bulbs. Some argue similar protective measures would be appropriate in eastern Ontario as well.
Wild leeks are popular sellers at markets because they are so tasty and versatile. Both the leaves and the bulb can be harvested. Stronger than a green onion or chives, but not as strong as your traditional garlic bulbs, they can be diced and tossed into salads, sauces, and soups. They can be infused into oils and vinegars. They can even be pickled. Some warn against eating the bulbs raw because they may wreak havoc with your digestion, but, in my experience, eating two or three small raw bulbs has never been a problem. Not for my stomach anyway. Be warned: you will taste and smell those two or three tasty morsels for days. Listerine has no chance against wild leeks.
While I do enjoy eating them, I find picking to be the best part. It’s time in the woods with family, each of us hunched over and harvesting carefully by hand, channelling our oft-forgotten gatherer instincts of old. Except we arrive on noisy four-wheelers.
Once we get relatively close to an area that is good for picking, we turn off the four-wheelers and disembark, leaving the machines on the trail. As we gather our few tools—tiny pails, trowels, and sharp paring knives—we start to hear and feel the quiet peace of woodland life. We hear the treetops creaking in the breeze, the birds calling out to each other, and the squirrels chattering out their loud warnings. We spread out and begin looking down into the fallen leaves of the forest floor.
The creatures of the woods must find us a truly bizarre sight. We are covered from head to foot. High rubber boots, pants tucked into socks, gloves pulled over the cuffs of our coats, and bug-nets on our heads, we know better than to underestimate the tiny but biting black flies of early spring and the ever-increasing number of disease-spreading ticks.
We look for the largest bright green leaves as these are indicators of the best bulbs to harvest. We’ll harvest from the biggest leaves and then move on, leaving the rest to grow undisturbed this year. To ensure the longevity of a patch, we pick only about 5 to 10 percent, or two or three bulbs and then move on to another area. It’s also a good idea to harvest by cutting the bulb out and leaving the bottom centimeter of the bulb and roots in the ground. Then cover those severed roots with the surrounding rich humus to tuck it in for time to rest and recover. The leaves we don’t harvest but have removed as part of cleaning are returned to their home so they can once again become part of that soil.
Bend, dig, cut, pull. Wander. Repeat. I enjoy looking up now and again to see where my brother and father are, to see which hill or slope they’ve wandered to. Sometimes we’re close enough to talk to each other, but sometimes not. That’s okay. We’re better than most at being able to appreciate the quiet work at hand. As we move around, we enjoy the sounds of birds and wind above us and know that as we move apart and drift to various patches in the woodland carpet, this still counts as time together, as an experience to be grateful for.
Once we’ve picked our share, we head back to the four-wheelers with the blackflies still swarming us. Only when we can pick up speed as we exit the bush do they turn back and let us go. Then we zoom past fields just awakening from winter rest, back to the house for more cleaning, cutting, and putting them into jars or small plastic bags for use in the next few weeks.
The whole experience is all the richer because we know that acres of bush are not to be taken for granted anymore, that such tracts of maple and oak and other hardwoods are becoming increasingly rare, and that they take several decades, if not centuries, to bring back. In my area of eastern Ontario, it’s not surprising to see acres and acres of woodland cleared and burning in less time than it takes for a season to pass.
In the last few years, the rate of clearing here has sparked public debate and anger. I know how lucky I am to access these woods I’ve been wandering and helping to maintain for my whole life. But there is no guarantee this bush, and its delicacies and rich ecosystems, will last forever.