I’ve never seen leeks up this early, but sure enough, while preparing for our upcoming Maple Sugaring program, I spotted some popping up at the end of February!
Wild leeks- Allium tricoccum- also known as ramps or spring onions, are among the very first signs of spring in our forests. They usually pop up sometime in the latter half of March, their determined spears of early growth piercing up determinedly amongst the thawing mud. I usually notice them first while we are out leading tours of our maple sugaring operation. The feet of hikers on the trail inevitable crushes some of the new plants, releasing an unmistakable scent of onion. For me, the scent of wood smoke and cooking maple syrup are always intertwined with this onion-y aroma.
As far as I can recall, at least, leeks are up weeks earlier than they have been in the past. No doubt the tranquil temperatures of this winter have contributed to their early arrival. With all the changes unfolding due to introductions of new species and climate change, I often wonder what our forests will look like in fifty years. Will leeks in February be the norm?
You can see leeks, or parts of them, year-round in Cleveland Metroparks. Long, luscious green leaves grow from the tiny shoots that initially poke out of the ground. By late April, the forest floor is covered in patches of verdant green leeks. The plants will flower in later summer, after the leaves die back. The umbel-shaped flowers aren’t terribly conspicuous, but are pretty in their own right. The flower stalks often remain up all winter, giving knowledgeable passers-by a hint as to where they can be found the following growing season.
Leeks are edible, and have become somewhat of a darling among local restaurants’ seasonal menus. The leeks you see in Cleveland Metroparks are not available for gratins or soups, however. Because harvesting from the Park District is illegal, consider growing them in your own backyard! Leeks thrive in shady, moist soils, so they’re perfect for that spot in your yard where nothing else seems to grow. The deer won’t touch them, they’re virtually disease and upkeep-free, and they’re an important source of food for local pollinators. Within a few years, you’ll have a lovely patch that you can harvest yourself!