At the end of winter, we’re all getting a little tired of the same foods from the pantry and cold cellar (or just running low if it wasn’t an abundant harvest). We love taking family walks and hikes once the snow melts and the ground dries enough that we can. When you add these two together, what you get is a family foraging trip.
After being cooped up for the winter, it’s wonderful to go for a walk and find treats.
Asparagus is one such treat for us. We love them raw as a treat, or we can carry them home to cook that night, or can or freeze for future use.
What should you know about asparagus?
For starters, it is listed as one of the healthiest foods in the world. Wow.
Asparagus is high in vitamin K, folate, copper, B1, B2, C, and E. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Can you eat an entire cup of asparagus in one setting? I don’t think I could if I tried. But if I did, it would only be 37 calories.
Most asparagus is green, although purple varieties are starting to be grown in private gardens more and more. When I was in southern California, we would find wild white asparagus growing on the river banks. They were my favorite asparagus. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find them elsewhere.
So where do you find wild asparagus?
They grow best in full sun, although they will tolerate shade. They don’t like strong winds, and do best in well drained soil that has a pH of higher than 6 (6.5-7.5 is really the best).
Asparagus thrive in areas where the winters are cold enough to freeze at least the top few inches of soil long enough to provide the necessary period of dormancy. If you have heard of asparagus growing in your area, try to find an area that matches this description.
When you find your patch, look for harvestable spears 6-8 inches tall, and cut or snap them off at the soil level, but not lower. If everyone is responsible to snap or cut carefully, they can produce for 20 years or more.
How do you know if you’ve found asparagus?
If you don’t know what it looks like, at least take a book. Bring it back to someone who would know for sure. Better yet, take someone who knows with you. Never ever eat a plant if you only kinda know what it is.
Asparagus has fleshy roots, is fern-like, and has feathery foliage. It can get up to three feet tall–which makes a patch easier to find in the grass, but unless you like eating wood or are in a survival situation you aren’t going to want these big boys. (I cut them off and let them produce new asparagus unless I want to use it as a marker.)
How can you tell if it’s “damaged” or just looks funny because it’s not pampered in a garden?
Slugs, snails, and two different types of beetles (that I know of–there may be more?) will chew on young fronds. This will cause their tips to curl under when damaged. They are still perfectly edible if this is all that’s wrong with them. If they are completely fine except for this, you are in business.
If for any reason they are spotted, moldy, black, or any strange color, don’t eat them. In fact, the best thing you can do if you find some that are moldy is to completely dig them up and remove them from that area. If it’s not your land, call the owner first and ask–they will probably be glad you’re willing to help them out unless they want to do it themselves, in which case, mark the area for them so they will find it.
Think you’ve found a new patch?
Leave it alone until you can verify that (unless you are familiar with them and can age them). You should not harvest asparagus in the wild until they are four years old.
Also, don’t harvest asparagus when they become pencil thin, or the stalks start to feather out.
If you live in a cold cold climate like I do, then you know when the asparagus are ready, they are only harvestable for about two weeks. Bummer. I know. But, if you know you are the only one eating off this patch, then you can utilize the Motherstalk Method to get a little more.
At the beginning of the season, carefully harvest your patch for two weeks, allowing 2-3 spears from a few crowns to grow and produce ferny fronds (interpretation: don’t harvest it all). This will slow the production of additional spears for a little while.
If you are patient, production will begin to speed up as the motherstalk you left to grow is able to photosynthesize now because it’s bigger, and likely taller than the surrounding grass. The smaller ones will begin to grow again, and you will be able to get about 10 more weeks of harvest out of them.
If you harvest it all in the first two weeks, it will not be able to photosynthesize through the surrounding vegetation and your harvest will be done.
Warm soil increases and quickens growth, so if you’re in a warmer area you don’t need to worry about this.
For allergy reasons: you should know that it is in the onion family and it’s relatives include garlic, scallions, and shallots. If you have allergies to any of these, it might not be a good decision to try asparagus unless you’ve had it before without experiencing problems.
Asparagus are widely available in parts of the United States in markets, but usually aren’t cheap. When purchasing asparagus to grow in your own garden (not for newbies), you could pay $1 a spear–and then 4 years later eat them. Male plants yield much better than female plants.
If you are starting your own homestead and aren’t overwhelmed yet, asparagus are great to plant in an area (perhaps on a sandy or rocky area along the riverbank–which is where we find ours). You need to give them attention the first year, but after that, you can forget about them.
If you are the only one eating off your private patch, there is a way to harvest some your second and third year, and then normally your fourth year. About your fourth year of homesteading when you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, you will find them a tasty blessing. If you find you don’t like them, they make an excellent bartering item as they are ready at a time when many people are just starting their gardens.
Do you forage for asparagus? Or just buy them?
Bradley, Fern Marshall; Find-It-Fast Answers For Your Vegetable Garden; Rodale Organic, Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2007.
Kirk, Donald R; Wild Edible Plants of Western North America ; Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Naturegraph Publishers Inc., 1970.
Marrone, Teresa; Rocky Mountain States Wild Berries And Fruits Field Guide Adventure Publications, Inc., 2012
Wayne, Ambler; Christensen, Carol Landa, et. al.; Treasury of Gardening: Annuals, Perennials, Vegetables & Herbs, Landscape Design, Specialty Gardens Publications International, Ltd, 1997.