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To stalk the wild asparagus is to touch the shadow of our greatest modern forager, the late Euell Gibbons, whose book of that name was not only the first foraging book I read as a child, but was also the first foraging book for nearly every forager over the age of 35. We all read it read greedily, over and over until in many cases our copy collapsed from wear.
Despite this, instructions on actually finding wild asparagus are impossibly rare in foraging literature. Perhaps some writers view the feral sprout as beneath them — it is not a native to North America, after all. Maybe some think it too easy to find, or, so precious they dare not reveal the secret.
I aim to change that.
Asparagus officinalis, you should know, is precisely the same plant you buy in the store. It is not, strictly speaking, wild. It is feral. Like fennel in California, it has escaped from cultivation in the 400 years since Europeans brought it to the New World.
Now asparagus lives in every state in the United States and every province in Canada, as well as through much of Mexico. So you’d think it would be all over the place, and indeed in a few places it is.
The reality is that asparagus is not everywhere. For example, it is found in fewer than half the counties of California, and is equally spotty in Oregon. Most states have asparagus zones, and asparagus-free zones.
Knowing which was which was once tricky, but thanks to the USDA, you can see in which counties asparagus grows on this map, which will zoom in down to the location level in some states.
That will get you close. But you still need to actually find the young, tender spears in early spring, when they emerge from a scraggly root crown that can live in excess of 50 years.
When in early spring? As early as February in California, as late as June in Canada. Every region has its indicator. Here it’s when the wild mustard blooms. In other places it’s when lilacs blossom.
When you are ready to start, look for saline or alkaline soil. The patch I pick, in the Suisun Marsh, is a brackish swamp. Moisture is important. Asparagus doesn’t want its feet wet, but wants to be close enough to get the benefit. This can be anywhere in the East and South, but in the arid West, you will need to focus on marsh edges, irrigation ditches and near cattle ponds or sloughs and streams.
Asparagus will only live in full sun, or close to it. You can find it near small trees and even in briar patches, but never in a forest or even an open wood. Here they like to hang out with hemlock, wild mustard, curly dock and tules (And ticks. Keep a watchful eye for the evil critters).
If you see salicornia (pickleweed, saltwort, etc), you are too salty. Step back a few feet. In the Midwest — southern Michigan is an exceptionally good place to look for wild asparagus, for example — look around ditches, hedgerows, farm field edges and especially fence lines.
OK, so you are in a likely spot. What to look for?
You’ll know an asparagus spear when you see it, so that’s not a problem. But finding them can be the devil. Your best bet is to look for old plants from the previous year. Asparagus is an herbaceous perennial, meaning the growth above ground dies back every year. As a flourishing plant, asparagus is tall, up to 6 feet tall, and ferny, like fennel or dill.
There are male and female plants, and the female plants will eventually sport pretty red berries all over the ferny foliage. Alas, the berries are toxic, so don’t eat them.
When the plant dies back in late fall, it turns a lovely canary yellow — a color most other dying plants don’t have, so this is a way to spot them in fall. If you do, mark the spot on a GPS or make a mental note so you can return in early spring. Winters in even mild areas like mine will often knock that old growth over, so you will need to look for what appears to be a dead ferny plant on the ground. It helps to know that the foliage all stems from the central stalk, which was the asparagus spear. If you are still unsure, look at the base of the dead plant: It should have scars identical to the triangular leaf scars on every asparagus stalk.
Once you find a plant, stop. Look. Let your eyes adjust. Finding asparagus spears can often be as hard as finding morels. But once you do spot them, you can go to town.
Use a knife to cut each spear at ground level. Generally speaking, a plant puts up a set of skinny spears first, then fat ones, then finishes with skinny ones. Many times the plant will send up a precocious spear so early that it has already begun to fern out by the time you are out looking. This is a boon to spotting the plant.
It’s a fact that a plant that is kept cut will send up more spears than one only harvested once. So you can come back to a patch a couple times. But be absolutely certain you leave several spears to grow fully, or you will weaken or even kill the plant. Asparagus can grow an inch a day in perfect conditions, so be vigilant. The season is an orgy of asparagi, not a marathon.
I don’t know about you, but I can eat a pound of asparagus at a sitting. Most people can’t. So the question of preserving asparagus becomes an issue. Now I know lots of people claim to like pickled asparagus, but I am not one of them. For me, I gorge and gorge on asparagus until it’s all gone. And then I move to the next awesome vegetable of spring.
But if you wanted to preserve wild asparagus, my advice is to blanch the spears in boiling, salty water for 3 minutes, shock them in a big bowl of ice water, then pat dry, vacuum seal and freeze. I’ve done this and the result is better than any other preservation method, but still can’t hold a candle to fresh-from-the-ground asparagus.
So go forth. Seek ye the glorious wild asparagus, harbinger of spring and mischievous agent of stinky pee. Eat, feast, gorge! Just don’t ask me where my spot is.