Maintaining Wild Leek Populations

Release Date: May 10, 2018  

Wild leek, pulled from the ground so you can see the leaf and bulb.Gladstone/Munising/Rapid River/St. Ignace, MI -- Wild leeks, also known as wild onions or ramps, are a spring time delicacy often associated with passage into the spring season. Recently, biologists have documented severe overharvesting of leeks on National Forest lands. While the plant may currently appear to be abundant in some locations, populations can quickly be eliminated through overzealous harvest. So if you enjoy eating leeks -- and especially if you gather leeks on public lands -- there are two key things you can do to ensure that species of this delicious native plant continue in healthy populations here on the National Forest:

First, learn about the biology of leeks. And second, remember that on National Forest lands leeks may only be harvested in small quantities for personal use; commercial harvest is not permitted. In addition, there are areas where no leeks may be harvested. Read on to learn more about these two key bits of knowledge!

About Leeks 
In the UP, many of these leeks are the common leek, Allium tricoccum, but we may also have the rare narrow leaf wild leek. All leeks reproduce slowly, but in recent years, unregulated harvest of leeks’ underground bulbs has appeared to increase significantly.  So in order to ensure the continued presence of both the common and rare types, Forest Service biologists have begun efforts to learn more about leek populations in our area. We encourage you to learn more so that you can do your part, too!

In the Upper Peninsula, it is currently not uncommon to find a clump of leeks peeking up through the last of the snow pack at the base of northern hardwoods -- and after snow melt, in clumps on the forest floor among maiden hair fern and spring ephemerals like Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn, spring beauties and trillium.

Close-up of three Wild Leek bulbsBotanists refer to leeks as “ephemeral” because their leaves only appear in the spring for a short time until the leaf canopy develops overhead. Once leaves block the sunlight from reaching the forest floor, leeks’ leaves will yellow and die back until the next spring season. But the bulbs remain alive beneath the upper layer of soil.

Later in the summer the leek bulbs will send up a shoot and a bloom will appear. Leeks produce a white umbel shaped flower. The flowers in the umbel will create black seeds much the same size as a BB pellet. It takes about nine years for a fertile leek seed to germinate and develop a bulb and future plant.

Nine years – that’s a long time! And this brings us around to a couple of important points.

As mentioned before, on the Hiawatha National Forest we have two kinds of leeks.  Most abundant is the common leek, Allium tricoccum, which is a North American species of wild leek found in eastern Canada and eastern United States and a perennial bulb-forming native plant. Biologists also believe that we may also have the rare narrow leaf wild leek that is considered rare and in need of protection.

In order to determine whether or not we had populations of the rare narrow leaf wild leek and to see if over-harvesting of leeks was occurring, monitoring plots were established on the west unit of the National Forest. After the first two seasons of monitoring, biologists documented over-harvesting of leeks at more than one monitoring transect. And after four seasons of monitoring, the data revealed serious population loss trends, including instances of entire removal of hundreds and in some cases even thousands of plants.

Why is this a concern? When a leek bulb is harvested (removed), the leek plant is gone. It can’t re-grow or re-populate once the bulb is removed. In order to ensure leeks remain sustainable, monitoring has shown no more than 15% of a population should be removed. Other recommended techniques harvesters could use include:

  • Harvest leek bulbs from scattered patches preferably only where large patches occur and not from small populations or individual plants, which are likely just forming a clump of leek bulbs.
  • Rotate your harvest of leeks among several areas so there would be one or two years of rest between harvests in a given area.
  • Limit ground disturbance when harvesting leek bulbs by using a tool like a “dandelion digger” or a knife so you only remove one or two bulbs from a clump thus limiting disturbance impacts. If you removed more bulbs than intended just replant the bulb(s) back.
  • If harvesting leek leaves (not bulbs), snip leaves from individual clumps and leave a few leaves behind to help the bulbs build up energy reserves.

Harvesting Leeks on National Forest Land
Also, if you are considering gathering leeks on the National Forest, please be aware that there are a few areas on the Hiawatha National Forest where harvesting of leeks is not allowed, including Wildernesses and Research Natural Areas. For instance, on the West Unit of the Forest these areas include Dukes Experimental Forest; Dukes Research Natural Area; Big Island Lake Wilderness; and Rock River Canyon Wilderness. In Region 9, Eastern Region of the Forest Service, there are currently no free or commercial use permits issued for the collection of leeks. So, leek harvesting on National Forest System Lands in general should be only for personal use with sustainability of the leek population in mind.

With proper conservation, our local leek populations can remain healthy for sustainable personal use harvest.  Do your part! For further information on leeks or other wild botanicals, or if you suspect commercial harvest is occuring, contact the Hiawatha National Forest at 906-387-2512.

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About the U.S. Forest Service
The U.S. Forest Service is an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and as such is part of the federal government’s executive branch. The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land and is the largest forestry research organization in the world. 

National Forest System lands provide 20 percent of America’s drinking water.  The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land and is the largest forestry research organization in the world. The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. For more information, visit www.fs.usda.gov/.

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