Picking asparagus in the spring

Published 5:28 pm Tuesday, May 15, 2018

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When we were growing up, I always thought asparagus grew wild. It certainly seemed to along Benn’s Church Boulevard back in the 1950s.

Our farm was located on what is known as the Suffolk Scarp, a ridge of sand laid down as the coast during one of the earth’s warmer cycles millions of years ago. We just knew it as home.

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I now understand that our asparagus wasn’t wild, at least not originally, and like many things we enjoy today, it also wasn’t native. Asparagus originated in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, including parts of Africa. It became popular throughout Europe during the 16th century and was eventually brought to America by colonists. It’s been actively cultivated plant in the United States since the 1800s.

That ridge of sand I mentioned, coupled with a wire fence that ran along the full half-mile of road frontage, protected one of the area’s most productive patches of asparagus.

But that wasn’t all that protected it. My mother loved asparagus, and when the land began to warm in the spring, it was a sure bet that asparagus shoots would appear along what was then known as Red Point Road. As children, our after-school job on cool spring days was to take paring knives and a bowl and hunt for asparagus.

There were others in the community, I will now reveal, who also coveted that asparagus patch and would occasionally be found hunting the ditch bank for it. They did not want our mother to catch them doing so, for asparagus theft ranked right up there with ham stealing in her view.

Today, we cook asparagus a number of ways, including grilling it. Back then, she knew only one way to serve it — in a soup. Personally, I’m still fond of asparagus soup, though I enjoy it most any way it’s served.

Back then, we also didn’t know anything about white or purple asparagus. Purple is a particular breed of the stalk, but white asparagus can only be achieved by painstakingly covered emerging stalks with loose dirt so that they grow in the dark and thus never develop the green color. It’s highly prized and highly expensive.

Roadside asparagus patches have essentially disappeared today. Fencerows have been eliminated as farmers quit raising livestock. Herbicides and cultivation have completed the decimation of what we once thought of as a “free” spring treat.

Gardeners still grow asparagus, of course, but they have to be very serious gardeners to tackle it, because establishing an asparagus bed requires some effort. Virginia Tech’s Extension Service has published an excellent primer on the subject if you’re interested.

Personally, I just liked hunting for it when we were kids, and now that those days and pleasures are passed, I’ll take what’s offered in the produce department.