Gathering Wild Asparagus

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Wild asparagus spears.
Photo by Hank Shaw

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.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

mature wild asparagus
Photo by Hank Shaw

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.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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44 Comments

  1. Tender young green briar shoots in spring can be cooked like asparagus imo. I cut back my green briars to the ground each fall forcing the plants to send up fresh shoots in spring. The taste varies wildly from patch to patch. Sometimes, they have a pleasing sourness to their taste- almost lemony. Terroir is important contributor to their taste. Usually, I eat them raw as a trailside treat or as a juicy snack while working in the yard.

  2. I use to find this along the road side in Montana back in the 70’s. Pretty soon others started looking for them too so my pile started to dwindle after a few years.

  3. I’m with Cyndi. Does wild asparagus grow in western Kentucky? Or can I get some going on my place to just let grow wild?

  4. Laurie Germain, I am a transplant to MT from IL whre asparagus is EVERYWHERE. It is here in MT. Once you find it, you’ll see it everywhere as well. I have a prolific supply for the season just driving the local highways. Best to you!

  5. I hope not everyone in Wisconsin is as possessive of their roadside ditches as Jay. There is a difference between gathering directly from the roadside and trespassing onto someone’s fields and woods. We should be happy that people are enjoying and benefitting from nature’s bounty. In addition, for some families, foraging is the difference between sufficient, heal full eating and going hungry. At least that is so where I live.

  6. Question – are the ditches in Michigan considered county property and therefore free domain to hunt asparagus? Last week we hunted for asparagus in various ditches in the country side and in one area it butted up against farm land and the land owners came by and asked us what we were doing and we told them and then they asked us if we had asked for permission. They then proceeded to tell us that they use to grow asparagus in their garden and that the birds ate the asparagus and probably replanted the asparagus in the ditch with their droppings so the asparagus belonged to them.

  7. Megan,

    It has been reported to grow in the Rim country and mountains of Arizona, but I and some other foragers have looked hard and haven’t found any patches yet. From the advice I’ve been given old homesteads along and near creeks are the places to look, but thus far all the ones I’ve found on public lands haven’t been infested, but the hope is always there…..

  8. I’m looking for a great Pickled Sea Asparagas recipe. Do you have one? My foraged delight is sitting in the refrigerator awaiting a great recipe. Thank you

  9. I transplanted some baby wild asparagus 20 years ago in my vegetable garden and now every spring we enjoy a fresh asparagus right from the garden. I wasn’t aware until today that what I had was a wild asparagus.

  10. What is your water to salt ratio in that preservation method? I got about 6-7 pounds that I would like to put up. Does it matter?

  11. There was a patch of feral asparagus next to the fence line in the off-leash dog park on the East Side of St. Paul, MN, that I used to visit with my standard poodles. Only a few of us knew where it was and we only shared the location with peeps who would appreciate it. It was far enough off the beaten path that we didn’t worry about it being used as vertical or horizontal dumping ground. That’s what we told ourselves anyway …. Most of it was pretty scraggly but that never stopped us from breaking off a couple of spears and munching them as we walked with our dogs, savoring the awesome sweetness of our find and praising the memory of old Euell.

    Pee S.: – I can easily eat a pound of asparagus myself – roasted at 425 for about 10 minutes, with some olive oil, a little salt and pepper and maybe some garlic powder. I prefer them over french fries any day.

  12. I was about 6 or 7 when my older sister discovered wild asparagus growing in an old apple orchard near where we lived in Minnesota. For the few years that we lived in that house, every spring we would head over there with our Easter baskets and fill them with the young shoots. That was my very first foraging experience.

    More recently I have begun doing just what you said… marking them on my GPS in the fall, when it is easy to spot the green or gold ferns with their red berries (I didn’t know they are toxic… never really thought about eating them). Here in Minnesota, they are up at the same time as morels and trout season, and as you know, morels and asparagus pair beautifully with trout.

  13. I probably always write this, but this was such a great article! I never, ever thought to look for asparagus while out hiking about in N. California. I’m guessing that not much wild asparagus grows here in Arizona?

  14. Asparagus has never been my favorite vegetable, but i’m glad i found this preservation tip. it might not be fresh but its better than a dead one..lol.. thanks!!!

  15. Please be courteous and respect landowners’ rights when picking roadside asparagus. I don’t know about other states, but here in WI almost all secondary roads are public rights of way across private property. A road right of way is only that, the right to pass along the road. It does not give the public the right to pick plants from the roadside ditch. I have a couple of wild asparagus patches along the road which runs through my property. So far nobody but me has picked them, but if I find someone else doing it, they will be asked to stop (and to hand over the asparagus). Politely, but firmly.

  16. I’ve discovered 3 patches of wild asparagus growing near where I live in northern Michigan over the years, and I look forward to visiting them every spring to harvest some of the delicious spears. Harvest time here is usually around the first part of May, but it can vary by week or two from year to year. I also grow asparagus in my garden, and love that too, but something about those wild patches keeps me going back to them every spring….

  17. There are TONS of wild plants that I spotted out by my fiances old place. Luckily ditches are public domain! my favorite term regarding asparagus…”I cuss, you cuss, we all cuss for asparagus!”