Last Chance Foods: Food In Danger

Dwarf Ginseng

Seeing heaps of ramps at farmers markets can be a little alarming for anyone who has read about the possibility that the tender spring onion is being over-harvested in the woods. The New York Times took up the issue two years ago. Nonetheless, the desire for ramps continues to gain momentum.

“Ramps right now, in most locations, are not in peril, but they are in decline,” said Dr. Robert Naczi, the Arthur J. Cronquist Curator of North American Botany at the New York Botanical Garden.

A expert studying North American plants, he explained that many native plants have very slow reproductive cycles. “They live in an environment that is very stable and they don’t need to replace themselves very often, so they generate few seeds,” Naczi said. “So be careful about things like ramps, like dwarf ginseng, like American ginseng.”

The over-harvesting of medicinal herbs like native ginseng, as well as goldenseal, serve as cautionary tales. “Those have been in serious decline and their numbers have not recovered from over-harvesting during the past... century,” he said.

That’s not to say that Naczi is anti-foraging. He just recommends foragers keep both the environment and others in mind. That means practicing sustainable and responsible gathering techniques.

“First of all, when foraging make sure that the population is large enough to support that,” he said. “So what I mean by that is make sure there are a lot of the plants out there. My rule [of] thumb is that, when foraging, gather less than 10 percent of what is present.”  

As a botanist, Naczi follows similar rules when gathering specimens. He will take one sample if there are 12 individual plants, or two if he sees 25.

There are some exceptions, though. Garlic mustard, for instance, is an invasive that Naczi says can be gathered without restriction. He said it can be used in salads and serves as a “wonderful spring tonic.”

Dandelions, with their copious and easily dispersed seeds, are also plentiful and edible.

“If [foragers] are going after weeds, especially invasive plants, actually it would help,” Naczi said. “But if they’re going after certain native plants whose populations are already in relatively low supply, it could actually imperil those plants.”