What is that smell? My brother and I found ourselves asking that question as we hiked along the trail. The odor resembled garlic or onions, strong and persistent in a local area, then as we walked on, it vanished. Sometime later the odor came strongly again. We looked around to see if there were some kind of onion in the vicinity, but all we could find was wild ginger, trillium and mayapples. The area was wooded and shady, of course; virtually everywhere along the trail was wooded; oak and maple predominant in this particular area, about 2500 feet in altitude. The soil was noticeably loose and rich, full of humus, with the mountain slope providing plenty of drainage.
I thought it was the wild ginger. I have a small patch of wild ginger in my garden, but I’ve never noticed a distinctive odor coming from it. The roots are supposed to be usable as an herb, similar to the ginger found in grocery stores, but not botanically related. Still I surmised that the odor of such large amounts of ginger might be strong, as the flavor usually is. I have little experience of wild ginger, certainly none of patches that are as large as tennis courts. I took a leaf and a stem and crushed them in my hands, and all that came out was a fresh grass-like scent. I smelled the soil around the ginger, and although the ambient area was filled with the distinct aroma, the soil smelled like, well, soil.
Dave thought it smelled like ramps. What are ramps? He had attended a ramp festival somewhere in North Carolina. They cooked with ramps, and told stories about ramps, which are popular in the Appalachian region. He didn’t particularly like what he had tasted, which is unusual for my brother, but he knew that people collected ramps in the mountains.
Still there was no sign of an unusual plant. We walked on until we came to another patch of wild ginger, where the aroma was again strong. Every time we entered a large patch of ginger, which was regularly at the same altitude and type of environment, the aroma came. I guessed that the aroma percolated up through the soil from the roots.
Maybe ramps and wild ginger are the same plant? We wondered about it, but walked on without knowing. Recently I took the time to investigate further. Wild ginger, which I had correctly identified, is Asarum canadense. Ramps are an entirely different plant, scientifically identified as Allium tricoccum and Allium burdickii. Both wild ginger and ramps show up in the same kind of mountain environment. Ramps look something like lily of the valley, but the leaves die back after their spring appearance, leaving the onion-like bulb in the soil.
My favorite story about ramps, also called “wild leeks,” comes from their seasonal character. Mountain families would find and use them alongside morels and other mushrooms in their spring cooking. Children often enjoyed ramps’ sweet taste, and ate them like candy, with the problem being that a vile smell oozes from people’s pores for days after eating them. Children were often excused from school for those days.
So we have to go back. We have to dig up the roots and see whether there are some onion-like bulbs among all those wild ginger roots. We will put our trowels to use in this scientific quest, which is different from their typical use along the trail.
May you find yourselves on fruitful quests throughout the coming spring. May your curiosity be piqued and your senses be stirred with aromas, flavors, sights, sounds, and textures in limitless variety. Taste and see that God is good.