A Magical Life

Teaching kids (and parents) foraging, cooking, traditional skills and living well on less

Telling the difference between ramps and lily-of-the-valley

Wild ramp on the left; lily-of-the-valley on the right.

Wild ramp on the left; lily-of-the-valley on the right.

Ramps (wild leeks) are edible and delicious, while lilies-of-the-valley are not — in fact, they’re poisonous. Don’t let that scare you away from harvesting ramps, though. There are several ways to easily spot the differences.

Ramps (ramsons in the UK) are alliums, members of the onion family. Lily-of-the-valley is an imported flower that has invasive habits and contains cardiac glycosides, which affects the body in a similar manner to foxglove (digitalis). Symptoms of ingesting it include flushed skin, nausea, dizziness, headache, weakness, hallucinations and changes in heart rate. In extreme cases, it can lead to death.

The two plants look similar, but there are good ways to tell them apart. In the picture, a wild ramp is on the left, while a lily-of-the-valley is on the right. You can see some differences right away, and there are even more ways to be sure you’re picking ramps and not lily-of-the-valley.

Visual Differences:

  • Ramps have a bulb with rootlets at the very end; lily-of-the-valley have longer roots with rootlets along the length,
  • Ramps have one or two leaves that emerge separately from the ground; lily-of-the-valley has a stem that appears and multiple leaves that are whorled around the center.
  • Ramps do not have a flower stem until later in the season; the lily-of-the-valley flower stem appears almost as soon as the leaves unfold.
  • Ramp flowers are a cluster of white flowers at the end of the stalk; lily-of-the-valley flowers are bells that hang down from the length of the stalk.

Location and emergence:

  • Ramps grow on the floor of moist, open woodlands; lily-of-the-valley is a domestic plant which likes the same soil, but is usually found only on old farm sites.
  • Ramps emerge earlier in the year here. We were collecting them while lily-of-the-valley were still breaking the ground.

Olfactory differences:

  • Smell is the easiest identifier. Tear the leaf — ramps smell very strongly of onion and garlic. Lily-of-the-valley has no smell when the leaves are torn.

I recommend locating and digging up a lily-of-the-valley so you can see the differences for yourself. The best way is to forage with someone who has experience with ramps your first time out. That said, we were able to easily identify ramps our first time out. And remember, if you’re not positive, don’t eat it.

Happy foraging!

Information for this article came from first-hand knowledge, Wildman Steve Brill’s site, and Paul Kirtley’s blog.


This article originally appeared at Examiner.com


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This entry was posted on September 7, 2015 by in Foraging, How-to, Ramps and tagged , .
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