A Springtime Ritual: The Hunt for Wild Asparagus

Asparagus on the grillby Deena Schmalz

For the past few weeks now, there has been a common sight along the rural roads of our area. Vehicles are parked askew on the shoulder and its occupants can be seen hunched over patiently searching through the grass and weeds on the ditch banks. With plastic grocery sacks in hand, these persistent souls can be seen reaching through fences and walking great distances in search of a simple treasure.

What is this unusual ritual? It’s the wild asparagus harvest. Once locals start to burn off their ditches in late winter, visions of tender asparagus begin to haunt the thoughts of vegetable lovers. They anxiously await the arrival of these delicate little spears as they poke their heads up through the soil. The first time I observed this occurrence, I was baffled and amazed. That such a pricey and exotic vegetable grew wild along the roads and was free for the taking, well that was almost too good to be true.

But how long has asparagus been so admired and sought after? Here are a few interesting facts about this vegetable of kings.

  • Centuries ago Egyptians cultivated asparagus and Chinese herbalists used it to treat arthritis and infertility.
  • Roman emperors especially enjoyed the vegetable and kept an Asparagus Fleet on-hand for the sole purpose of gathering it.
  • “As quick as cooking asparagus” was a popular Roman saying that described something being accomplished quickly.
  • King Louis XIV of France desired asparagus so much that he had greenhouses built so he could enjoy it year round.

If you’ve never participated in the wild asparagus hunt, and you’re thinking you might like to try your hand at it, here are a few helpful hints that may assist you in maximizing your harvest. Wild asparagus is the first vegetable of spring in Colorado. Stalks can appear as early as March and if conditions are right, can last through July. A mature asparagus plant can send up spears that may grow as much as ten inches in 24 hours. Plants thrive on the continual groundwater seepage that can be found along riverbanks, irrigation canals and roadside ditches.

Finding spears hidden among the grass and weeds can be difficult. Look for the dead growth from last year’s asparagus plats. They are bushy, about three feet tall and have the appearance of dried-out, scraggly ferns. Pick spears before the tips start to spread and leaf out. Don’t cut, but rather bend the spears at the base and they will snap off, leaving the tougher woody stem behind.

As you pick the young spears of wild asparagus, new growth will continue. So if you find a patch, pick it regularly to keep the new, tender shoots coming up. Once the tips of the spears have leafed out and started to produce berries, it has gone past the point of being edible. These plants will now contribute to next year’s growth.

So hopefully, these few suggestions will provide you with the inspiration to join in on the springtime harvest. Remember, asparagus growing along the ditch banks is fair game. But if you find a beautiful patch along the road in front of someone’s house, please let it be. They’re probably planning on picking it later that evening, to share with their family the delicacy once coveted by kings.

Deena Schmalz moved to Western Colorado as a newlywed from California (she married a Delta County native).  Through her adventures of experiencing both the simple aspects and larger wonders of what Western Colorado has to offer, she wrote a series of articles under the column heading of Bloom Where You Are Planted – A Transplants Guide to Exploring the Western Slope.  We hope you enjoy her perspective of life in our corner of beautiful Colorado!

Category : Western Colorado Living



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