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Asparagus — a taste of spring

Asparagus is one of only a few perennial vegetables that can be reliably grown in the North Country. For gardeners and consumers alike, it is one of the most anticipated early-season, local garden crops and a sure sign, especially after a long winter like this past one, that warmer weather is coming. I’ve heard it called ‘one of the true delights of the season’ and “spring on a plate.”

Gardeners have been growing asparagus for more than 2,000 years. Its name comes from the ancient Persian word ‘asparag’ or “aspharagos,” which translates as shoot or sprout. It is believed to be native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Its origin as a cultivated crop appears to date back to ancient Egypt, where it was, apparently, held in such high regard that it was often ceremonially offered to their gods.

Records dating back to the first century A.D. confirm asparagus being harvested and eaten in the eastern Mediterranean (Rome, Greece, and Spain) during the first century A.D. While it would appear that the Greeks and Spaniards gathered wild asparagus for immediate consumption, the Romans, on the other hand, were cultivating it in season, and drying what was not immediately eaten, to be stored for later use.

By the 16th century, asparagus was known across most if not all of Europe and praised in culinary literature in both France and England, where it became known as ‘sparagus’ by the more refined and better educated; ‘sparrow grass’ by the English peasants. By many accounts, it was grown not just for its rich, savory flavor and unique and celebrated epicurean characteristics, but for its medicinal qualities, as well, with myth, legend, and lore furthering its distribution by hailing it as an aphrodisiac (although there appears to be no basis for this other than shape).

Although there is no documentation to confirm it, it is a widely accepted belief that the early colonists brought asparagus roots from Europe to the New World and that pioneers carried it with them as they traveled west. It has been grown in North American gardens since, and can frequently be found growing ‘wild’ in places where it has escaped from cultivation; often flourishing beside rivers and streams, and along the seacoast. In fact, ‘wild’ asparagus is so prevalent in some locations that debate continues about whether or not it is actually native to North America.

Commercial asparagus production began in this country in the middle of the 19th century. Today, fresh market asparagus is grown in almost every state. California, Michigan, and Washington clearly dominate North American large-scale commercial production of this high-value perennial vegetable for both the fresh and processing markets. However, China and Peru are currently the world’s largest producers and exporters of asparagus.

For the home gardener, growing asparagus doesn’t have to be difficult. But it can be somewhat labor intensive and it does require patience, especially at first. Nonetheless, anyone who has done so, will tell you that planting and maintaining an asparagus bed is well worth the effort. While it may be a few years until an established planting will yield enough for your first worthwhile harvest, a well-maintained asparagus bed will produce bountifully for years to come. Ten to fifteen years of abundant production can be expected and many gardeners report harvesting sustainably from established beds for 25 years or more, with just minimal annual maintenance. You can request information on growing asparagus in your yard or garden by contacting me by email (rlg24@cornell.edu) or by calling 518-483-7403.

Asparagus is a healthy choice for any diet. It has been given the botanical name asparagus officinalis because it is recognized as an official therapeutic herb. It’s very low in calories and sodium. And it’s very high in folic acid content, dietary and soluble fiber, and loaded with all sorts of vitamins (including an exceptional list of B vitamins), minerals, and other key nutrients. It is widely heralded as being anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant, an immune system stimulant, and a diuretic (although this is not proven) and laxative, with a beneficial effect on the kidneys, liver and bowels. It is associated with supporting digestive and heart health and generally considered a risk reducer for certain cancers.

While most people think of asparagus as only green, I am sometimes asked about purple and white asparagus. Purple asparagus is a hybrid. Anthocyanin pigments and associated flavonoids give it its unusual color. The ferns of purple asparagus shoots are actually green. And purple asparagus shoots change to green when cooked beyond a brief steaming or sauteing. Many asparagus aficionados claim that purple varieties are sweeter than their green cousins and there is research that supports this, maintaining that purple varieties are higher in sugar content than green varieties.

White asparagus is the end result of a little horticultural hocus-pocus. To accomplish this, gardeners mound or hill up soil or compost over emerging asparagus shoots as they grow, thereby keeping them from receiving any sunlight. This, in turn, prevents them from producing chlorophyll (green pigment), and causes them to remain white.

I have also been asked about a change in the odor of urine after eating asparagus. Some people detect a difference. Others don’t. As I understand it, the same compound that gives skunks their abhorrent stench, an organic sulfur compound called mercaptan, is found in asparagus. Perhaps some people are able to process and break down mercaptan in their system, while others cannot. Or maybe some people just have a more exacting sense of smell than others.

You decide.