Other Names sparagrass, sparrowgrass , sperage
Asparagus is a Eurasian member of the lily family (liliaceae) and a fast-growing, long-lived perennial. Spears shoot up early in the spring sometimes growing as much as 10 inches in a 24 hour period. The rest of the year, beautiful ferny foliage, tiny flowers and, in autumn tiny red berries add interest to the garden. It looks great in the perennial border or herb garden.
History and Folklore
The word asparagus comes from the Greek and it refers to any young, tender shoot that can be eaten.
Asparagus was prized by the ancient Greeks over 2500 years ago. It was considered to be a cleansing and healing herb and used it for many medicinal purposes. The Romans in their turn also prized asparagus and cultivated it (the Greeks wildcrafted it) from the and spread it throughout Europe on their conquests. Emperor Augustus coined the term ”“velocius quam asparagi conquatur”” which means to do something quicker than you can cook asparagus. Similar to our phrase “two shakes of a lambs tail”. So much did the Romans prize asparagus, that in the first century, runners took asparagus from the Tiber River valley to the Alps so that it could be frozen and thus preserved for the Feast of Epicurus.
King Louis XIV had asparagus grown in his greenhouses so that he could enjoy it year-round, he dubbed asparagus the King of Vegetables. It was also popular in England and other parts of Europe and colonists brought it to America where Native Americans used it for medicine.
Asparagus was considered a phallic symbol banned from girl’s schools in the 19th century, but Victorian women were taught to detect the scent of this aphrodisiac on their husbands urine- a sure sign that he was behaving improperly!
Asparagus is great for permaculture because it can live 15 years or more and keep providing you with tasty spears each spring. It grows best in sandy, alkaline soil in full sun, but it’s not picky. It can handle a bit of shade and less than perfect soil too, as long as you fertilize it well.
You can get asparagus crowns at most garden centers. Dig a furrow about 10 inches deep and wide and as long as you want your row to be. Fill the trench about halfway with compost and place your asparagus crowns on top, about 10 inches apart and cover loosely with soil and water. This is best done in the springtime as soon as the danger of frost has past.
You won’t get any spears your first year, but the fern-like foliage will still be pretty. Make sure you mulch well every autumn to keep weeds down and a steady stream of nutrients coming. Asparagus is a hungry plant.
Harvesting & Storage
Do not harvest your asparagus until it’s at least three years old. This allows the plant to have time to build a strong root system.
Your plants will start sending up shoots shortly after the frost has past and may continue well into June. Cut the shoots near the base when they are about 10 inches long and about as thick as your finger. If they are thinner than a pencil, your plant isn’t ready for harvesting yet, or it’s gotten tired of being harvested and needs to be let alone. Make sure the heads of the spears are tight and haven’t started to feather out. Once they’ve started to get ferny, it’s too late to harvest them.
Asparagus is best eaten fresh, but if you want to save some for later, put it in a glass of water like a bouquet of flowers and store it in the fridge. If you want to save some for a long time later, steam the stalks for about five minutes and then freeze them in a freezer bag.
Asparagus is a good diuretic and is full of nutrients to help build up strength. It is a good food to eat when you are doing a bodily cleansing, a great “spring tonic” kind of food.
Asparagus is one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables you’ll find at your grocery store. It is high in folic acid, potassium, fiber, vitamins B6, A, C and thiamine, contain no fat or cholesterol and are low in sodium.
It is best lightly steamed so that it is tender-crisp and bright. It can also be eaten raw with or without dip.