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Reducing the impact of harvesting

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Wild leek
Photo: Biodôme de Montréal

Six golden rules

Harvesting remains the main threat to the survival of natural populations of wild leek in Québec. It is important to minimize its impact, if we want to conserve this precious springtime resource. You can start by following these six golden rules:

  1. Be patient
    When the snow melts and wild leek emerges, its bulb is still slender, something like a green onion. It puts on weight very quickly, however, tripling or quintupling in size by the beginning of June, when its leaves fade. By waiting until the end of the season before harvesting, you will get more edible wild leek for your trouble, from fewer plants. 
  2. Reproducing plants: don't touch!
    Late in the season, you can identify reproducing plants by the floral stalk that appears at the leaf axil. Reproducing plants are essential to the survival of natural populations, so be careful not to harvest any plants with a floral stalk. Most of these plants not only produce seeds, but also divide after flowering. Each time you harvest a flowering plant you destroy not only the seeds, but also one or two new plants that would have appeared next year. 
  3. Spread yourself around
    Wild leek generally grows in clumps. After the bulbs divide, the sister bulbs remain attached for several years, thereby boosting their chances of survival. Gathering a plant here or there rather than all in one place allows the rest of the clump to keep growing and to divide. Harvesting entire clumps greatly reduces productivity, since new plants will have to be grown from seed, and so will take longer to reach maturity. 
  4. Easy does it!
    Using a shovel or spade to harvest wild leek destroys many young plants and disturbs their habitat. This method also means that you will take several plants from the same place, leaving large holes. With a small trowel, on the other hand, you can take one plant at a time, limiting the disturbance and allowing surrounding plants to continue growing normally. 
  5. .08 is the limit
    When experts monitored a mature wild leek population for five years and analyzed its growth rate, they could see the natural seasonal variability in germination, the survival of young plants, growth and reproduction. This work showed that harvesting more than 8% of the plants in a wild leek population can send it into decline. Wild leek grows slowly, since it has only four to six weeks a year to replenish its annual reserves. In a stable and relatively undisturbed habitat such as a maple stand, this strategy works well. But by gathering bulbs, we increase the mortality rate, which can easily exceed the reproduction rate for the species. In other words, we are destroying plant stocks-just think of what happened with cod! 
  6. Why not the leaves?
    When you harvest a wild leek bulb, you take the plant's main food reserve, and it dies. It is like harvesting a carrot, except that the carrot forms in a single season. We sow our carrots in May and harvest them in July. For wild leek, on the other hand, it takes seven to ten years, starting from seed, to produce a reasonably large plant. One simple way to reduce the harvesting of bulbs is to eat the leaves, for they also have the strong garlic taste that people appreciate in the bulb. Picking leaves will of course slow the plant's growth, but will not kill it. It is best to take only a leaf here and there-the plant will recover, and you can still satisfy your craving for a "taste of spring." 

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