By Ken Brown
Late April and early May is the perfect time to walk through the woods and take a leek or two. That’s leek, not leak.
Other than October, early spring is probably the best time of year to spend afield. Mother nature is waking up and anxious to get things going.
To begin with, the “bugs" are minimal. During a normal year, black flies and mosquitoes won’t be biting until mid-May. An April walk in the woods is very comfortable. The sleepy hibernators, like chipmunks, are busy looking for food and raising their young. Their scurries through dry leaves can be heard constantly. The year-round carnivores, like fox, are finding easier hunting. Gone is the snow that hampered their search for mice.
Birds are probably the noisiest. During the winter, the most you often hear on a woodland walk is the chirp of a chickadee, a nuthatch or the hoot of a barred owl. But by late April, the woods are alive. Among my favorites is the yellow bellied sapsucker. They pound on hollow trees, metal posted signs and house gutters to mark their territory. The irregular beat is easy to recognize.
Everyone should be required to spend at least one morning in the woods before daylight. Most folks won’t, because it means rising early enough to beat an early spring sunrise. Set your alarm for 4 a.m. – ugh. Before daylight there is little if any noise, but as daylight breaks, it gets louder and louder. When the sun finally rises at 6 a.m., the sounds are almost deafening.
The forest floor also comes alive in spring. Small wildflowers like trout lily, may apple and jack in the pulpit begin to grow. Unfortunately, some of our wildflowers, like trillium, are becoming hard to find. The constant feeding pressure of deer has dramatically altered the plants found in the forest.
Back to leeks, which kitchen aficionados will more easily recognize as “ramps.” This spicy delicacy tastes like a cross between hot garlic and an onion. Chefs use ramps for flavoring soups, stews and other high-end foods. Bakers use them too, think bagels and breads. They are best used fresh, but they can be frozen or pickled.
The best harvesting is a three- to four-week window revolving around May 1, but be careful, they are very strong. Folklore says wild leeks can keep both colds and neighbors away. Leeks have the same cholesterol-reducing potential as garlic and they are good for you since they are high in vitamins A, C and minerals.
Wild leeks will completely disappear by mid-summer. Like many plants, they take advantage of the sunlight that reaches the forest floor before trees leaf out. Once the forest canopy closes, the leeks dry up.
But that’s OK. They have managed to catch enough sunlight to complete their life cycle and are ready to spend the remaining summer, fall and winter hiding under the forest floor.
You never find just one leek in the woods. A patch usually contains hundreds, thousands or even millions. Not surprisingly, deer don’t feed on them. The leaves, which stretch from the ground, are about 1½ inches wide and 6 to 8 inches tall. The below-ground parts are similar to a green onion or scallion. The entire plant looks like a leafy scallion.
They are expensive to purchase, probably because they are so hard to harvest. The forest floor is an impenetrable tangle of tree roots. Digging is tedious and very difficult. An hour’s work might yield only a pound or two.
Most turkey hunters are familiar with wild leeks. Turkey season opens on May 1 and leeks are at their peak. As I troll the woods looking for turkeys, I sample one or two and grimace at their sharp taste. Promises are made to return soon and harvest more for the freezer. I usually forget, regretting it later in the year.
Ken Brown, of South Wales, will be looking for wild leeks to store in the freezer.