Are you an avid woods forager? Do you enjoy harvesting and eating wild leeks? If so, you may be contributing to the decline in wild leek populations that has been occurring over the past decade. Populations in Northern New York, where the plant is listed as endangered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, are increasingly threatened by unsustainable harvesting. Wild leeks take three to five years to reach maturity and reproduce mainly through vegetative propagation, pointing to the fact that they are a slow-growing species.
In Quebec, the effects of overharvesting are already visible. Many populations have become extinct, and it is now illegal to harvest these plants. Wild leeks were one of the first species listed as endangered in the province; they are even banned from being served in restaurants. Would you really eat an endangered species?
Once celebrated as the first greens of the spring season, wild leeks have become ingrained in the culture of some regions and are now honored by annual ramp festivals all along the East Coast. These small, strong, onion-garlic flavored plants have become trendy to eat due to the local and foraged foods movement.
However, they have historically been part of many tribal traditions and folk medicinal practices. These plants are environmentally important as spring ephemerals; they play an important role in the nitrogen cycle and prevent invasive species from becoming established in their habitat.
Classmates and I who have studied the problem advocate for the implementation of harvesting limits, and fines if these limits are exceeded. We also advocate personal and commercial cultivation practices to serve the demands of festivals and restaurants.
If you do end up harvesting a wild leek, make sure you know the proper technique. Studies show that only 10 percent of a population should be harvested every 10 years to sustain the population. Next time you are in the woods and see a leek, think before you pick, know that you are perhaps harming current and future populations.
The writer is a student in conservation biology at St. Lawrence University.