Asparagus, A Vegetable Worthy of a Festival
For me, the first shoots of asparagus poking out of my half-oak barrel planter are a harbinger of spring, much as daffodils or crocus flowers are for others. I planted bare root asparagus in a barrel four winter’s ago, and I am eagerly awaiting my first large crop this spring. Asparagus roots need several years to develop, and it is best to resist the urge to pick them until their third or fourth season. Instead, let them grow freely until the fern-like growths turn yellow in the fall. Then cut the stems and put the container in your garden’s “bone-yard”. Try to forget about the asparagus so that one day in late Winter or early Spring you will be pleasantly surprised when you stumble upon little green shoots barely poking out of the soil. It is best to try to forget about the asparagus because if you don’t, you will constantly be checking the container for the first signs of growth, and you will come to believe that spring will never arrive.
Once the asparagus shows itself, the plant is a joy to watch. In the best conditions, asparagus spears can grow an inch per hour, and the plants are relatively pest-free. With its ease of cultivation and rapid growth, it is no wonder that a recipe for cooking asparagus appears in the oldest surviving book of recipes, by the Greek Apicius. Asparagus was cultivated by all of the ancient cultures, and our word “asparagus” derives from Persian, meaning “sprout” or “shoot”. Today, China is by far the world’s largest producer of asparagus, with Peru and the United States a distant second and third. California’s Central Valley produces a large crop, inspiring Stockton’s annual Asparagus Festival in April.
For our modern sensibilities, the healthful properties of asparagus are impressive: low in calories, no fat or cholesterol, very low in sodium, and a good source of folic acid, potassium, and fiber. While we are most familiar with green asparagus, several varieties are eaten world-wide. More common in Europe, white asparagus is denied light during development. A variety of purple asparagus has been cultivated in Italy and can sometimes be seen at farmer’s markets. “Wild” asparagus, while actually a different species than common asparagus, is increasingly seen on upscale restaurant menus.
The list of asparagus’s accolades is long: easy production, ready availability, high nutrition, long history, delicacy of flavor, versatility of preparation, and beauty in presentation. However, I think that what gives asparagus a special place in the Pantheon of vegetables, worthy of a festival, a romantic dinner, or a holiday feast, is its seasonality. Beginning with the Mexican crops in February and March, then Southern California, then the Central Valley, Northern California, and finally the Pacific Northwest, asparagus is gone by June. It makes a brief comeback for the Fourth of July holiday, then it becomes just a memory until the next spring. Asparagus is like a lesson in Buddhism: embrace and appreciate it while it is here, then, when it goes away, let it go with no regrets and fond memories.