Wild leek (scientific name Allium tricoccum) is native to North America. This species is actually a wild onion that is found growing extensively in eastern Canada as well as the eastern region of the United States. The common name of this plant - wild leek - is used for several other plants belonging to Allium species, especially the Allium ursinum - a species native to Asia and Europe.
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This is an herbaceous plant that grows perennially. The basal leaves of this plant are measure anything between 4 and 9 inches in length and 1½ inches to 3½ inches across on small petioles. Usually, two to three basal leaves appear from each bulb. The shape of the light to medium colored basal leaves may vary from ovate-oval to ovate-elliptic. The leaves are smooth and hairless. They are downy along the margins.
The petioles of the plant are hairless, reddish and below they are covered in a basal sheath. The leaves start growing during spring and by the time it is early summer, they start withering. A naked flowering stalk measuring anything between ½ inch and 1½ inches in height develops between early and mid-summer. The stalk is glabrous and terete and its color varies from red to light green. A papery sheath covers the base of the stalk. A solitary round umbel of flowers measuring 1 to 2 inches across develops at the apex of the stalk. On an average, each umbel comprises about 20 to 40 flowers. A couple of deciduous bracts also appear at the foot of the rounded umbel.
Each flower of the wild leek plant measures about ¼ inch across and it comprises six tepals whose color varies from white to translucent. The ovary is light green to pale yellow in color and six stamens grow from it. In addition to a solitary white style, the stamens have yellow anthers. A slender white to greenish white pedicel is found at the base of every flower. The plant is in bloom during summer and the flowering season lasts for around two weeks. The flowers as well as the foliage of wild leek emit an odour that is similar to that of onions.
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Once the flowering season is over, the ovary of the flowers develops into a three-celled seed capsule. Each of these cells encloses a solitary globoid seed, whose color changes to black when mature. The wild leek’s root system comprises an ovoid bulb having fibrous roots at the bottom. Often offsets develop and they produce clonal colonies of wild leek.
Wild leeks offer several health benefits and hence are popular among people in many places. Wild leeks enclose enough iron, which improves the distribution of oxygen throughout the body, enhances the body's energy levels and also supports the healthy functioning of the immune system. In fact, iron is particularly important for women who are in pre-menopausal stage. This is because during their menstrual cycles such women suffer from profuse loss of iron.
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Among the Native Americans, the vegetable prepared with wild leeks in very popular as an herbal remedy. There was a time when people belonging to Cherokee tribes consume preparations of this plant in the form of a spring tonic to cure colds and croup. In addition, they used this plant in warm juices to cure earaches. Similarly, people of Ojibwa tribes are said to have used wild leeks in the form of an emetic decoction to induce vomiting. Iroquois tribes used the roots of wild leeks to cure worms in small children as well as to cleanse the overall body. Now, science has been successful in identifying the specific nutrients contained in wild leeks. Hence, it has been found that wild leeks have several therapeutic potential and many of these are being considered by the scientists.
Wild leeks have the potential to prevent as well as cure cancer. This is because wild leeks contain elevated amounts of antioxidants. For instance, several studies have suggested that wild leeks contain the flavonoid antioxidant called kaempferol and this vital nutrient is involved in cell death (also known as apoptosis) in a variety of cancers that afflict humans. Findings of one study that appeared in the 2000 edition of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry put forward that the wild leeks are rich in the trace mineral selenium content. As a result, consumption of this vegetable may help in the occurrence of cancer in humans.
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Consumption of wild leeks may also help in maintaining the optimal health of your health. For centuries, Native Americans have considered the ramps of wild leeks to be beneficial for the heart as well as the circulatory system. This vegetable is rich in folate content which aids in regulating the levels of homocysteine in the body. However, when protein homocysteine is present in elevated amounts, it can also be a reason for developing heart diseases, particularly atherosclerosis. Findings of various studies have also shown that kaempferol present in wild leeks may help in reducing the chances of developing cardiovascular diseases.
The flavonoid kaempferol helps to safeguard the blood vessels from damage, in addition to maintaining the liver by eliminating bad cholesterol from the body. In fact, wild leeks may help in lowering levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol, which is vital for preventing the risks of developing heart disease as well as atherosclerosis.
Wild leeks are also beneficial for the functioning of the brain. As this vegetable contains choline, which is a precursor to neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain. It especially contains a compound that is a precursor to acetylcholine. It has been found that the presence of sufficient amounts of choline in one's diet enhances learning and also endorses the cognitive system in children as well as adults to function effectively.
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According to the findings of a study carried in the 2011 edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, intake of elevated amounts of choline is related to improved cognitive performance.
Since wild leeks are among the first greens that occur during spring, the ramps were believed to be a vital "tonic" as they offered various vitamins and essential minerals that are usually not available in vegetables during the winter months. The Cherokee consumed the young plants after boiling or frying them, while the Iroquois consumed the plants after seasoning them with salt and pepper. On the other hand, the Menominee as well as the Ojibwa used the ramp for consumption during the winter months. They dried and stored the various parts of the ramp for this purpose.
The leaves and bulbs of the young wild leek plants are consumed widely. The taste of the wild leek ramp is similar to that of the spring onion, but has a pungent aroma that is like garlic. People in Appalachia generally consumed the ramps after frying them in animal fat or butter. However, they also consumed the ramps raw by adding them to salads. Often, the ramps are eaten along with scrambled eggs or potatoes. In addition, they are also used while preparing soups and various other savouries.
Wild leeks are one of the most extensively harvested wild foods - almost over harvested around the world. As a result, these plants have become very scant in some areas.
You can grow wild leeks like any other farmer. The ramp seeds are available at specialty stores in your area.
In fact, you can also grow these plants in your yard. However, if you are growing these plants from seeds, patience is of utmost importance. This is because the wild leeks seeds can take anything between six and 18 months to germinate and grow. Having said this, it is preferable that you transplant the bulbs of wild leeks during the onset of spring or in the latter part of fall. Small ramp planting pots are available at a number of plant nurseries and even few grocery stores. They sell wild leeks ramps along with some undamaged roots. While you are transplanting these bulbs in bigger pots or on the ground it is important that you take additional care to ensure that neither the bulbs not the roots are damaged even slightly.
Wild leeks ramps usually grow in compact groups that have strong roots that extend just beneath the soil surface. Ideally, the bulbs should be planted approximately three inches deep into the soil and each bulb needs to be planted at a distance of roughly four inches to six inches one another. Another important thing is to plant the bulbs’ tip just above the surface of the soil and then cover the bulbs with leaf mold mulch or any deciduous leaf. It is important to water the bulbs adequately after planting.
These plants require full light at the beginning of the spring. However, they should not be planted directly under the sun. As wild leeks are naturally found growing in woodlands, they also need some protection from extreme sunlight and heat. In case you cannot plant wild leeks in the periphery of any humid woodland area, you should ensure that they are grown in a place having partial shade. Alternatively, they can also be grown in places that receive enough shade from neighbouring trees. While these plants have a preference for normal moisture, they will not grow properly if the soil is wet.
Wild leeks are harvested during the latter part of April and the harvesting season continues till June – the ramp leaves start dying during this period. After the plants are harvested, the ramp bulbs will remain dormant in areas where it is moist and has complete shade. They will again come to life with new leaves in the following season.
Wild leeks are very rich in nutrient content. They also contain several vital nutrients necessary for our body, especially many sulfur compounds that are usually found in garlic - such as allicin and kaempferol. In addition, wild leek extracts yield some other sulfur compounds like allyl-containing cepaenes which are also called 2-propenyl 1-(2-propenylsulfinyl) propyl disulfide and capaenes, which are known as sulfinyldisulfides.
Moreover, wild leeks also enclose large quantities of antioxidants, especially vitamin A, vitamin C, polyphenols and the trace essential mineral selenium. These leeks are also vital sources of carbohydrates, fiber and protein. They also contain a number of other nutrients such as iron, calcium, chromium, choline and folate.
You can harvest the mature wild leeks immediately after their flowering season is over. If you want to ensure optimal growth of the plants in future, you should not harvest in excess of 15 per cent of the wild leeks. On the other hand, harvesting only the largest plants would also promote best growth of the wild leeks in future. While harvesting the plants, it is important that you are careful and do not damage the plants that are left behind to grow further. When you are harvesting the wild leeks, you need to keep them moist and cool. After harvesting the plants, wash down the leeks carefully and remove the roots by cutting them off. Pack the harvested leeks in an unwrapped container and store them carefully in a cool location.