There are so many things that make Asparagus one distinctively unique vegetable. From the way it tastes to the way it grows, nothing is typical for this peculiar perennial.
Once grouped together in the same Liliaceae (lily) family as onions and garlics, asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is now separated out into the Asparagaceae family. While asparagus may have just been relatively recently reclassified, it’s nothing new in the world of vegetables and medicine, and was often used as a blood cleanser, diuretic, and an aphrodisiac. This Mediterranean native was known to be cultivated as far back as 3,000 B.C.E. and was depicted in Egyptian architectural designs. The ancient civilization of Syria and Spain made use of asparagus, as did the Greeks and Romans in later times. The asparagus made its way to France in the 15th century and then to England and Germany in the 16th century. By the 1800’s asparagus arrived in North America.
Asparagus by Design
Even the design of the asparagus is quite distinct. This plant has ferns, crowns, and a root system. The ferns aren’t true leaves, but are actually stems that undergo photosynthesis to make energy for the crown. The crown is a collection of rhizomes (modified stems) and a lateral root system that create new ferns. You may have heard the term spears when buying asparagus. Spears refer to the harvested section of the asparagus plant and are essentially immature ferns. Harvesting when immature helps insure you get them at their peak flavor and tenderness. If immature ferns/spears aren’t harvested, they develop into mature ferns, becoming tough and woody, but producing and storing energy in the crown for next year’s crop.
Another fact that makes the asparagus a bit of a rarity is that it’s a dioecious plant, meaning the asparagus has distinct male and female plants. The male asparagus produce more and larger spears than female plants. The female asparagus yield numerous bright red, berrylike fruits with seeds that can become volunteers in the garden or nearby fields and ditches. Due to the fact that male plants produce more and don’t create an overcrowding situation via volunteers from seeds, new lines of all male varieties have been produced.
Planting the Peculiar
Whether you choose to plant males or females, do so in very early spring, as soon as the earth can be worked. It’s best to plant one year old crowns, as opposed to seeds, because this will allow you to get a full one year jump on your asparagus production. Staying true to its uniqueness, asparagus will require your patience. Unlike many garden fruits and vegetables, asparagus cannot be harvested in its first or second year of growth. To allow for proper fern development asparagus mustn’t be harvested until the third year and only for one month to allow for the root system to properly expand and establish. In the fourth year and beyond, regular harvest of 2-3 months can occur.
When planting your crowns, place them in well drained soils approximately 1’ apart with roots uniformly spread out and crown right side up. Cover the newly placed crowns with 2” of soil and as the years go by add soil around your asparagus plants. Asparagus can grow in less than ideal soil, even slightly saline soils, but prefers compost mixed soils. As your plants grow monitor them for disease and insect damage, and work to control weeds (as this can out-compete young asparagus). If you find you have damaging insects in your garden, such as the asparagus beetle, your best option is to invite predatory species into your garden to eat the larvae. As for diseases such as rusts and rots, once the plants have been infected it’s difficult to organically cure them. Selection of resistant species can be useful, as well as keeping plants from being inundated with water. While it’s best, since asparagus grow for decades, to sow your plants on the garden edges, be sure to do so in full sun to allow for proper growth and resist rots, rusts, and mildews.
Asparagus generally comes in three colors; green, white, and purple. The purple hued asparagus is a distinctly different variety from the green and white asparagus. However, the purple color only runs skin-deep leaving the pulp of the asparagus green. White asparagus are just green asparagus that haven’t been allowed in the sun. As green asparagus grows it’s blanched by covering with soil or plastic to keep the plant from producing green chlorophyll. Just one more exceptional fact about this surprising vegetable!
You can probably guess that with all of asparagus’s distinctive features it stands out in the nutritional realm too. One cup (134 grams) of asparagus comes in at 27 calories with zero fat, 3 grams of protein, and 5 grams of carbohydrates (3 grams of which is dietary fiber). Asparagus is an excellent source of Vitamins A and K-1, and is a good source of Vitamins C, B-1 (Thiamin), B-2 (Riboflavin), and B-9 (Folate), and minerals non-heme iron, copper, and manganese. Asparagus is also a source of Vitamins E (Alpha Tocopherol), B-3 (Niacin), B-6, B-5 (Pantothenic Acid) and choline, and minerals calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and zinc.
Asparagus has antioxidant properties that help it reduce inflammation and boost immunity, and even protect liver cells. The fiber in asparagus, and many vegetables, is highly beneficial as a prebiotic to feed gut bacteria and keep the gut biome healthy. Asparagus is also known to be a diuretic which can help ease bloating and prevent urinary tract infections, as does the acid in the asparagus. The asparagusic acid in this vegetable is what is converted by our bodies into volatile sulfur-containing chemicals. And yes, this is what gives our urine that distinct “asparagus pee” odor that many are all too familiar with.
With asparagus’s many fascinating characteristics it also makes it a delight to use in the kitchen. Simply sautéing asparagus with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, until tender, is my favorite way to fix asparagus. However, there are many outstanding ways to prepare asparagus. Here is one such way:
(Chicken, Asparagus, and Bacon Rolls)
4 chicken breasts
16 spears fresh asparagus- trimmed
8 slices of bacon – cooked well but not overly crispy
4 slices provolone cheese
½ cup yogurt
3 tablespoons spicy brown mustard
Juice from 1 lemon
2 teaspoons dried tarragon
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup finely chopped nuts (any choice of pecans, cashews, macadamia, walnuts, or almonds will work)
Preheat oven to 475°F
Grease a baking dish
In a small bowl mix together yogurt, mustard, lemon juice, tarragon, salt, and pepper until well combined
Cook asparagus in microwave for 1-2 minutes
Place chicken breasts in a resealable freezer bag
Pound chicken with the smooth side of a meat mallet to ¼ inch thickness
Place 1 slice of cheese on each chicken breast
Top cheese with 4 asparagus spears and 2 bacon slices per breast
Tightly roll chicken breasts around asparagus, bacon, and cheese and place seam sides down in the prepared baking dish. (You can poke a toothpick through if the chicken will not hold together)
Using a pastry brush, apply a coating of yogurt mixture to each chicken breast
Sprinkle crushed nuts over chicken and press in
Bake for 30-35 minutes, until chicken juices run clear (if nut coating begins to brown too much, cover chicken with aluminum foil to prevent burning)
Serve and enjoy!
Having it all with Asparagus!
Asparagus is a vegetable that will teach you patience, nourish you well, greet you each spring, and become an old friend. Enjoy it both in the garden and the kitchen and look forward to seeing it as the world springs from its winter slumber. Began your journey with this matchless marvel and enjoy seeing your asparagus flourish for decades to come.
Drost, D. August, 2003. Utah State University Extension. Asparagus in the Garden. https://extension.usu.edu/files/factsheets/asparagus.pdf
Kaiser, C., et al. June 2016. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. Organic Asparagus. https://www.uky.edu/ccd/sites/www.uky.edu.ccd/files/Asparagus-Organic.pdf
University of Illinois Extension at Urbana-Champaign. 2017. University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Watch Your Garden Grow. Asparagus. https://extension.illinois.edu/veggies/asparagus.cfm