MONACA, Pa. — Penn State Beaver biology professor Sarah Nilson is spending the summer trekking through the woods of Pennsylvania to study a plant that is sought after by some and completely unfamiliar to others.
Nilson was awarded a research grant to study wild ramps, a plant that looks similar to green onions and tastes like garlic. Ramps are prized in certain areas, with some towns even holding ramp festivals when the plants come in season. They are also in demand with chefs who look to use locally sourced food, Nilson said.
Nilson is conducting her research with Eric Burkhart, a botanist who is the head of plant sciences for Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Petersburg; and Penn State Beaver student Haley Velemirovich, a food sciences major.
The team also has a research collaborator, Harvey Ballard, a professor of environmental and plant biology at Ohio University.
Working with the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources, the team is gathering data about ramps that grow in western Pennsylvania. Nilson said the goal is to help regulators know if wild ramps should be listed as a vulnerable species.
“Really, we don’t know much about them at all,” Nilson said of the ramps.
The team is looking at what types of wild ramps are growing in this region and their genetic diversity, studying whether the plants use sexual or asexual reproduction. Seeds that come from sexual reproduction are healthier and more diverse, Nilson said, and genetic diversity helps the plants have more tolerance to things like pests and disease.
One pest that is a possible threat to the ramp population is the allium leaf miner, which is a problem for onion and garlic crops. Nilson said the team will be looking for evidence of the allium leaf miner on ramps across the state.
Nilson said the group wants to identify ideal ramp habitats, encourage people to grow their own ramps, and “promote conservation via cultivation."