Audio Guide to Spring: Ramps, lampreys, butterflies and cranes
IPR's Red Pine Radio brings you nature spotting tips and wildlife news from northern Michigan.
This week, we're sharing reports of ramps, butterflies and cranes — and learning about a traditional English dish some may not find appealing: lamprey pie.
If you like hunting for edible plants in northern Michigan, this week you might be on the lookout for ramps, also known as wild leeks. They’re a wild, pungent, very popular species of allium.
“It looks a little like a lily of the valley, but it turns maroon as it goes down into the dirt,” says Northport cherry and flower farmer Sarah Hallstedt. She took TJ Harrison on a mini ramp romp in the woods behind her farm, Hallstedt Homestead Cherries.
Ramps, also known as wild garlic and spring onions, like the rich soil of hardwood forests. The season for them is extremely short — usually just a few weeks from late April into early May.
Each ramp has two to four broad tender leaves and a small white bulb similar to a scallion, though often you’ll find individual plants clumped together.
"It tastes something between a garlicky onion or an oniony garlic," Hallstedt says, adding that ramps are best grilled, roasted or sautéed. "Just using the leaves, you can use it like spinach. You can sear it in a pan with olive oil and salt and butter and all that."
Over-harvesting of ramps has become a problem, though. The plants are slow growing and some foragers will pull out the entire ramp.
"If you go and look at ramp recipes, there’s pictures of these beautiful ramps with their roots attached, and so people are not foraging sustainably when they’re looking to produce a pretty picture for a cookbook," says Hallstedt.
Their slow rate of reproduction combined with their popularity means there are fewer ramps to find. And Michigan has even more bad news for would-be ramp rompers. The state prohibits ramp picking on public land.
If you forage for ramps on private property, harvest where the plants are abundant and never pull the entire thing. Cut or snap off the ramp well above the roots. Just take a few, and never harvest small ramps with leaves less than 6 to 8 inches long. If the remaining plants are mature enough, they will usually bloom in early summer.
Since the year 1200, the citizens of Gloucester, England have been sending an eel pie to newly crowned monarchs. King Charles’ coronation is today, and he, too, received an eel pie.
Lampreys are the key ingredient.
You may recognize the lamprey as the invasive creature that attaches its mouth to large fish in the Great Lakes. Then, using its rasp-like tongue, it cuts through the fish’s scales and skin and slowly sucks the life out of it.
“This is an invasive species that causes hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to our Great Lakes fish,” says Great Lakes Fishery Commission deputy executive secretary Marc Gaden. His other title — conferred upon him by the City of Gloucester — is "purveyor of the lamprey," which he earned for providing lampreys for royal family events over the last twenty years.
"'Would we be kind enough to send them some so they could maintain the integrity of that tradition?'" Gaden says the royals asked. "My initial reaction was 'How about a couple of container loads full?'"
But they only needed 4 or 5, so they were frozen and sent via FedEx.
Why did the English have to turn to the Great Lakes for lampreys? The eels have been driven to near extinction in England, mostly because dams prevent them from migrating upstream to spawn.
And that’s what makes this a spring story in Michigan! Lampreys are migrating up streams across our state this month.
While they’re migrating, the lampreys put all their energy into reproducing. They tend to slow down and decay the further upstream they go. That makes it a little more likely that you can spot them.
But what about the pie for King Charles?
“This is all ceremonial anyway. Great Lakes lamprey shouldn’t be eaten because they’re toxic — full of mercury — top of the food web, blood-eating creatures,” Gaden says.
Instead of actual lampreys, King Charles’ eel pie includes symbolic eels, which were cut from pastry and attached to the outside.
Spawning season is your best time to go out and try to catch a glimpse of the lampreys. They will be moving up Michigan rivers well into June.
BUTTERFLIES AND CRANES
Mourning cloak butterflies have been spotted in Benzie County. These brown butterflies edged with cobalt spots and yellow wing tips often emerge from hibernation before the snow has completely melted, making it one of the first butterflies to take wing in the spring.
Sandhill cranes are back in the area nesting and hatching little cranes, known as colts. To see cranes and colts, go to Arcadia Marsh with a spotting scope and look in the fields on the southeast side. You’ll also see them at Stutsmanville Bog Nature Preserve in Harbor Springs.
Let us know what you’re seeing! Send your photos of northern Michigan flora and fauna to email@example.com. Put "Audio Guide to Spring" in the subject line.
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