Edible Dictionary: Chicago, the City Named for Ramps

Posted by Peter Smith

Chicago, n.
Pronunciation: ʃɪkɑgəʊ

  1. The name of the city in Illinois, U.S.A., derived from the Native American name for the pungent Allium tricoccum, a plant species also known as wild leeks or ramps.

On September 18, 1687, Henri Joutel left Fort St. Louis for Canada and arrived in an area known as "Chicagou," which, he wrote, "according to what we were able to learn of it, has taken this name because of the quantity of garlic which grows in the forests in this region."

Joutel, a French naturalist, recorded at least two different onion-family plants that early explorers and native Americans harvested in the region’s maple forests. Historian John F. Swenson says that, in the language of the Illinois Indian, chicagoua referred to ail sauvage, French for "wild garlic" (A. tricoccum)—rather than wild onions, or petits oignons (A. canadense).

For years, though, the etymology of Chicago had been misattributed to the “bad odors” of wild onion when actually the smell actually comes from one of North America's most iconic spring vegetables: ramps.

As Swenson writes in his essay:

It is still possible to find the plant chicagoua in forest preserves along the ancient portage routes that followed the Calumet and Des Plaines rivers. In April one can stand amidst acres of Chicago's eponymous garlic and watch barges and jet aircraft. Like the canoes of three centuries ago, they are carrying out their roles in the trade and travel of the modern city, which bears the name of the native garlic that still carpets the pristine forest floors.

Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that ramp frenzy had become even more fevered. Because they can't be farmed easily, the plants are gathered by foragers for "trendy restaurants," Eric Block observes in Garlic and Other Alliums. One Forest Service expert suggested harvesting half the patch, although another study found that, in Appalachia, taking 10 percent of the bulbs in a given patch once every ten years would sustain the wild populations. If pickers take 95 percent of ramps in a given patch, it would take an estimated 148 years for them to recover.  

The country is covered with cities named for plants and places named for cultivated foods—think Orange, California or Sugarland, Texas. Foods go hand in hand with the cities where they originated—deep-dish pizzas, baked beans, or cheesesteaks. Let's hope the foraging frenzy does not take too great a toll and erase the important species that gave Chicago its name.

Map via "Chicagoua/Chicago: The Origin, Meaning, and Etymology of a Place Name" ©1991, Illinois State Historical Society. Photograph by Peter Smith.