Scott Ranger is a friend and an inspiration. He works as a nature tour guide in Alaska during the summer, a job that suits him to a T. There isn’t a topic within the scope of natural history that he does not find fascinating, and the knowledge he has accumulated over the years in wide-ranging disciplines is my eventual goal. I want to be like Scott…well, sort of, and Scott would be the first to laugh heartily at that qualifier!
Like me, Scott loves the Smokies, but he’s been a faithful student of these mountains for decades. I’m still a newbie. So it is a thrill for me that Scott uses my blog to stay in touch with the place he knows and loves so well while living on the far side of the continent. It is a delight to read his comments and sometimes instructional too. Case in point: the onions of Miry Ridge. His thoughts on the identification of these onions got me checking other floras and plant manuals with some interesting, though not conclusive, findings.
You may recall that Mary and I find small spherical umbels of white flowers on short leafless stems while hiking up Greenbrier Ridge. Plants in the Onion Family (Alliaceae) flower this way. There are also no leaves at the base of these stems, and this indicates either Ramp (Allium tricoccum) or Narrowleaf Wild Leek (Allium burdickii). A side note here…the opinion that these are two separate species is a relatively recent one. Taxonomists originally considered Narrowleaf Wild Leek to be a variety of Ramp (Allium tricoccum var. burdickii), and some still do.
What are the distinguishing characteristics between the two? Primarily, it is one of size. As noted in Alan Weakley’s Flora, Ronald Jones’ Plant Life of Kentucky, and Eugene Wofford’s Guide to the Vascular Plants of the Blue Ridge, the bulb, leaves, flowering stem, flower umbel, and other plant parts are typically larger in Ramp.
Bulb – Ramp 2-3 cm thick, NWL 1-1.5 cm thick
Leaves – Ramp 5-8 cm wide, NWL 2-4 cm wide
Stem – Ramp >20 cm tall, NWL <20 cm tall
Umble – Ramp 30-55 flowers, NWL 10-18 flowers [though Ramp could have as few as 15 flowers, and Narrowleaf Wild Leek could have as many as 25]
There are similar size differences in length of the fruit pedicels (stems) and spathe bracts (leafy covering on flower bud) as well. Just to keep things interesting, there is overlap between the two in all these areas – smaller than normal Ramps, larger than normal Narrowleaf Wild Leeks.
Another key difference is the leaf petiole. Wider-leaved Ramp distinctly narrows to a petiole at the base, which is usually tinted red or pink. Narrowleaf Wild Leek has no distinct leaf petiole and is white at the base. Narrowleaf Wild Leek is also reported to flower a month earlier (June) than Ramp (July). The Gleason and Cronquist Manual of Vascular Plants states that other parts of Ramp may be anthocyanic (have a reddish cast), including the flowering stem and spathe bract.
In general, Narrowleaf Wild Leek seems to have a more defined northeastern distribution. Ramp spreads a bit further south and west and is more numerous throughout its range. Both plants are listed as rare and commercially exploited in Tennessee. Weakley notes that plant specimens collected in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and labeled as Narrowleaf Wild Leek appear to be Ramp. The parks’s vascular plant checklist includes both species for mid to high elevations with Ramp “occasional – well distributed, but nowhere abundant” and Narrowleaf Wild Leek “infrequent – scattered locales throughout the park.”
So on June 23 and 24 hiking between 3000 and 5000 feet, am I seeing late Narrowleaf Wild Leeks or early Ramps? I look back at all the photos taken of several different individuals on Greenbrier Ridge. Some have as few as 12 flowers, and the first plants we encounter are already setting seed. The stems do appear to be short, but I did not measure them and cannot state they are less than 20 centimeters. The photos of the bulb and spathe bract don’t show scale well enough to accurately indicate size, but there is a distinct reddish cast to the bracts and even the flower pedicels on a few of them.
I notice the flowering onions on Miry Ridge, but do not take photos or note specifics. Having no idea there are two species of such similarity, I do not realize how important close inspection would be. It’s the first rule for good naturalists – sharp observation! Scott has led Pilgrimage hikes on Miry Ridge in the spring and remembers large leaves with red petioles. That would be Ramp. I do photograph a plant in flower on Jakes Creek. Looking at the image, I can make a case for it appearing taller, and a rough count reveals at least 24 blossoms/buds. Is it possible that both plants are on these trails with Narrowleaf Wild Leek populations on Greenbrier Ridge and Ramp on Miry Ridge and Jakes Creek? Scott does not recall ever seeing the foliage of Narrowleaf Wild Leek in the Smokies, but has he hiked Greenbrier Ridge in the spring?
If this botanical uncertainty is to be settled, I must hike these trails in April and examine the foliage. To paraphrase Euell Gibbons, I’ll be stalking the wild leek!
By the way, Scott has an Alaska blog with beautiful photos and fascinating information on everything from plants and glaciers to bears and whales. Check it out. http://lscottranger.blogspot.com