Bagawaj zhigaagawinzhiig (Wild Leeks)
By Alex Wrobel, GLIFWC Forest Ecologist
Odanah, Wis.—As spring arrives, the forest floors are flourishing with new life. Like bright green "troops" invading last years' leaves the wild leek (Allium tricococcum) is a welcome sight to those seeking wild and fresh food after a long winter. These early plants are commonly referred to as "spring ephemerals" and are the first to arrive yet last for only a short time.
The wild leek or "bagawaj zhigaagawinzhiig" is also known as "Wenabozho's onion" or "the one he pointed out for food." The broad, smooth and light green leaves often have deep burgundy on the lower stems and onion-like bulbs rooted below the surface.
Generally, leeks grow in the rich, moist soils of deciduous forests throughout the eastern United States in small isolated clumps of densely crowded leaves. But of course the easiest way to confirm your identification is to tear off a piece of leaf or stem and take a sniff for the onion/garlic aroma.
Tribal members gather the bulbs and leaves of bagawaj zhigaagawinzhiig for food, either eaten raw or added as a seasoning to soups, stews, roasts or casseroles. Some tribal members gather and freeze a supply of these plants for use throughout the year. Often having an exceptionally strong flavor, this plant can be eaten sparingly. For certain people, it can cause gastric pain.
Bagawaj zhigaagawinzhiig should be harvested with respect. Tribal elders frequently teach that gathering ought to occur in amounts of only what is needed. Enough plants should remain undisturbed to ensure their survival for future generations.
Spring ephemerals give brief bursts of beauty
By Steve Garske, GLIFWC Invasive Plant Specialist
Odanah, Wis.—Spring has arrived early and fast, fueled by the warmest March ever recorded in North America. And as everyone who spends any time in the woods this time of year knows, some of our best known and most loved wildflowers have already burst into bloom.
These early bloomers are the spring ephemerals—spring beauties, trout lilies, toothworts, dutchman's breeches and squirrel corn, bloodroot, and wild leeks. Emerging from their 10-month sleep, these energetic little plants often appear within days of losing their snowy blanket. They grow rapidly in the abundant sunshine that streams down through the bare branches above. They flower for a week or two, and are already busy making seeds by the time the leaves are expanding above them. By mid-June they have all but disappeared below ground for another year.
Bloodroot (or miskojiibik) is an exception, often keeping its thick, powdery green leaves into mid-summer. As the trees are spreading their leaves, the spring ephemerals are quickly followed by summer-green plants such as trilliums (baushkindjibgwaun) and large-flowered bellwort (waabishkijiibik).
Spring ephemerals are often admired briefly and then quickly forgotten. But they were once welcomed not just for their beauty, but for the food and medicine they provided as well. Bloodroot (a member of the poppy family) was used to treat stomach cramps, as well as its more well-known use as a vivid red dye. The roots of trout lilies (numaegbugoneen) were mashed and used as a poultice to reduce swelling.
Cut-leaf toothwort (aemaushtaunishaessiwung) and its close cousin, two-leaved toothwort, are both members of the mustard family, which includes cabbage and other familiar garden plants. The flowers of this family typically have 4 sepals, 4 petals, 6 stamens and two ovaries (count 'em and see!). The underground parts (rhizomes) of cut-leaf toothwort in particular are thick and edible, with a crunchy taste similar to a horseradish. Spring beauty (meeautikwaeaugpineeg) roots are also edible, and the powdered roots were given to children to stop convulsions. Cut-leaved toothwort and spring beauty were both used as food by the Ojibwe and neighboring tribes.
Wild leeks (known as "ramps" down south) are renowned for their crisp flavor, somewhere between onions and garlic. This common native forest plant is closely related to garden leeks and onions. One rarely sees wild leek leaves with insect or deer damage, and it certainly appears that about the only creature that enjoys eating them are humans!
Ephemerals hit hard times
Some have wondered why the distribution of spring ephemerals is so sporadic? One area may have an abundance of spring ephemerals, while another area not too far away may have only one species or none at all. One reason may be historical. When the timber barons reached the northwoods more than 100 years ago, they logged off huge areas of the ancient pine and hardwood forest, leaving highly flammable slash in their wake. Massive, intense fires often followed. In some areas these fires were so intense that they burned deep into the soil, destroying the roots and seeds of the spring ephemerals and other forest plants. In some areas the spring ephemeral populations (whose seeds are typically distributed by ants) never recovered.
More recently spring wildflower populations have taken a serious hit from various species of earthworms, all of which are introduced from overseas. These earthworms (including the nightcrawler and a smaller, similar-looking cousin, often sold in bait shops as "leaf worms" or "beaver tails") eat leaf and "duff" layer down to the ground.
Because they are adapted to growing in leaf litter, most of our native woodland wildflowers (not to mention some trees such as sugar maple) reproduce and grow poorly in earthworm-infested forests. Many of these plants go into severe decline or even disappear altogether, only to be replaced with European invaders such as hemp nettle, garden forget-me-not, wood bluegrass and even garlic mustard, which are resistant to earthworms. Development and habitat destruction have also taken their toll.
Spring comes but once a year. So get out in the woods and enjoy!