Got Nature? Blog

Familiar with surprise lilies? Indiana has a native surprise onion!

Many yards where I grew up in southern Indiana were graced with surprise lilies. These plants grew long narrow leaves in the spring, which faded and died by early summer. After a pause with no evidence of the plant, long stems with pink lily-like flowers emerged, with no leaves to be seen.

Ramps foliage is often found in clusters or patches in early spring

Ramps foliage is often found in clusters or patches in early spring. These leaves will die before summer.

While these plants are not a native species, we do have a native with similar habits that is a distant relative of the surprise lily. That plant is ramps, also known as wild leek and a variety of other local names. There are two species of ramps recognized now – the more common broad-leaved ramps, Allium tricoccum, and the narrow-leaved ramps, Allium burdickii. Ramps are related to onions and garlic and have odor and taste reminiscent of those plants. Ramps foliage emerges early in the spring and was one of the earliest green edibles available to First Nations people and early European settlers.

Many communities developed festivals or celebrations centered on the emergence of ramps as a sign of spring and some fresh greens to eat. The bright green leaves emerge before the tree leaves and fade before summer, but by the first half of June expect to see thin stems with a rounded cluster of small white flowers emerge – our surprise onion! It may take a ramps plant seven to ten years from seed to produce a flower, so this is a slow-growing and long-lived forest perennial. The flowers are pollinated by insects and produce round black seeds that may stay on the stalk through winter.

Newly emerged flower stem and buds and the blooming flowers of ramps.

Newly emerged flower stem and buds and the blooming flowers of ramps.

Look for ramps in well-shaded forest areas with moist soils. They have a scattered distribution across Indiana, so you won’t find them in every woodland. The leaves and bulbs are edible, but absolute certainty of ID is essential as there are some toxic plants that look similar.  Check ID references and spend some time with experienced foragers before eating any wild plants. The onion/garlic odor of ramps is a good indicator for positive ID.

Since this is a slow growing plant with a limited distribution, over-collection is a threat. A responsible harvesting technique is to harvest one leaf from mature plants, leaving the other leaves and the bulb. If you harvest the whole plant, take less than 5 percent of the plants in a patch, allowing seeding and bulb division to repopulate the area. Seed or bulbs can also be used to plant new patches. So keep you eyes open for our local surprise flowers this June – ramps!


ID That Tree, Playlist, Purdue Extension – Forestry and Natural Resources (FNR) YouTube Channel
A Woodland Management Moment, Playlist, Purdue Extension – FNR YouTube Channel (Against Invasives, Garlic Mustard, Autumn Olive)
Woodland Stewardship for Landowners, Playlist, Purdue Extension – FNR YouTube Channel (Common Buckthorn, Japanese Barberry)
Indiana Department of Natural Resources: Invasive Species
Indiana Invasive Species Council
Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA)
Episode 11 – Exploring the challenges of Invasive Species, Habitat University-Natural Resource University
What are invasive species and why should I care?, Got Nature? Blog, Purdue Extension – FNR
Shrubs and Woody Vines of Indiana and the Midwest, The Education Store, Purdue Extension Resource Center
Planting Your Tree Part 1: Choosing Your Tree, video, The Education Store
Find an Arborist website, Trees are Good, International Society of Arboriculture (ISA

Lenny Farlee, Extension Forester
Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center
Purdue Department of Forestry & Natural Resources

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