Monday, March 15, 2010
It's that time of the year again: spring is springing in bounds and leaps, back and forth and roundabout. What used to be April weather now passes as March, at least in this neck of the woods. Elsewhere winter is still tightly holding on, while in other regions it never really settled in, in the first place. One of the most wonderful spring things to sprout at this time of the year (to my taste, anyhow), is wild asparagus. Regular cultivated asparagus bolts in May, but the wild variety pops up a little earlier. They are much daintier, but a delicacy nevertheless. Foraging for asparagus is not like ordinary foraging. It is more akin to mushroom hunting, for asparagus has a great talent to hide itself among the briars and bushes and often you won't see them at all until they are way too old and have started to sprout their feathery fronds. But once you have developed a 'nose' for the right season and the right places where the elusive spears might be found, hunting them down is an exquisite, fun-filled adventure, which may land you in some very strange places...
Asparagus likes to grow in a variety of places, depending on the species. Asparagus likes water, but not water-logged areas. It grows in well draining soil, near ditches or riverbeds and alluvial plains, where there is plenty of moisture nearby. It usually likes full sun, though some varieties also tolerate heavier soil and semi-shaded areas.
Although asparagus has a very distinctive appearance, it can be hard to spot. Euell Gibbons, in his classic 'Stalking the wild asparagus' gives a very good description of how one can learn to detect them: focus on the dead weeds nearby and learn to recognize last years dead asparagus brush.
That may be a simple thing on plain ground or if only searching for the upright growing wild asparagus, which in fact is 'escaped' garden variety asparagus, standing tall and hovering above other herbs. But Asparagus is a plant that originated in the old world. Worldwide there are about 100 species, of which at least 15 occur in the Mediterranean region. Among them is Asparagus officinalis spp prostatus*, a true wild variety. As the name suggests, this species creeps and winds its way along the ground and gets entangled in the undergrowth. When searching for the fresh spears one has to take a thorough survey of the riverbanks, sea shores or thickets of macchia to spot the old entangled mass and then dive further down into undergrowth to investigate where the plant originates and whether there may be any new shoots nearby. While this 'spotting challenge' makes the search all the more fun, the harvest is likely to be less plentiful than what Euell Gibbons describes in his book.
This species of wild asparagus is most common in southern Europe, Spain, Italy and France. The type that escaped cultivation also occurs, particularly near centers of cultivation. Birds are responsible for dispersing the seeds. It is hard to tell exactly how asparagus migrated to northern Europe, but it is most likely to have been introduced by the Romans. Apparently it has been in cultivation for a surprisingly long time - even the ancient Egyptians were familiar with it, and many ancient herbal textbooks mention it as both, food and medicine.
These days, asparagus is no longer employed medicinally, which is not to say that it does not possess some therapeutic actions. Asparagus is a strong diuretic and can be used as a cleansing plant, with the ability to release and flush toxins from the body. It acts on the kidneys and liver. It also has a great reputation as an aphrodisiac, though whether this is more due to its suggestive appearance or to any actual physiological effect remains a moot point (or perhaps a mood point?). I guess the proof of the pudding lies in the tasting.