Southern Agenda

(Don’t) Pick Your Poison

On the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office’s website, false hellebore comes with a little red label for high-severity poison. In nature, not so much—and the perennial plant, which harbors an alkaloid that can send an unlucky eater off to the hospital, looks a lot like a ramp. Appalachia’s favorite wild onion comes into season in early spring, and foragers can look out for some giveaways to differentiate it from its poisonous doppelgänger: The leaves of ramps grow directly from the ground, while false hellebore leaves rise from a stalk. Ramps love high-elevation, north-facing, forested slopes, but false hellebore prefers to hunker down in floodplains, marshes, and swamps. If in visual doubt, follow your nose: A ramp will smell like an onion. Once you’ve stumbled upon a patch of the real thing, clip above the roots so they can grow back next year, and fry up the bounty at home with ham and potatoes. Or follow the advice of the Asheville chef and longtime ramp lover Billy Dissen: “Make an omelet and stuff it with fresh morel mushrooms, goat cheese, and ramps,” he says. “I eat that and I think, okay, spring is here.”