(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 17, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Every time dad went anywhere, I had to tag along of course. We were driving back country roads one day in search of who knows what when I began to notice little strips of orange cloth tied to trees and fences. My dad used those same strips of cloth in the woods at our cabin to mark trails for us kids. I couldn't figure out why anybody would mark an already well traveled road. Dad already knew their meaning but he pulled over to let me see for myself.
What I saw was tall, thin, dead brown branches. This was early spring. Dad told me to look closer. Ah Ha!! At the base of those dead branches was the beginning of a treat soon to come. I had discovered the wild asparagus for the first time.
Asparagus officinalis. Wild asparagus is almost impossible to find in the spring unless you have marked the spot. The secret is searching for them in the fall and winter. Look for the long branches waving high above the rest of the brush. In the winter, the old, dead stalks are easy to spot above the snow. Ditches along roads are the best places to look.
Once you have found it, mark the spot well, the pieces of orange cloth tied to something nearby are a good idea. Beware though, those pieces of orange cloth are a pretty good marker for others with the same idea. Never pick all of the stalks, be sure to harvest only a few, leaving some behind for the plant to nourish itself for the next year.
Wild asparagus can be cooked the same way as the cultivated varieties. Their stalks tend to be thinner so less cooking time is required.
So, you've gone in the spring to gather your prize crop of the wild asparagus only to find somebody has beat you to it and they are gone. Vanished. All your fall and winter work in vain. All is not lost. We have a back-up plan.
Cattails. Yep, you heard me right. Cattails. Typha latifolia. They have a not-so-well-known secret. They taste like asparagus!!
Most importantly, always be sure you are picking the right plant before eating anything wild. Fortunately, cattails retain last years seed head long after the new plant begins to grow.
In the spring, before they begin to flower, find some nice sized cattail stalks. Peel back the leaves until you reach the core. Grab down as low as you can until your hands are almost in the mud and pull. You still have a bit of peeling to do until you reach the soft core. You'll know you are there when you can pinch it easily with a finger nail. Boil them up just like you would real Asparagus.
I know, it seems like a lot of work. Worth the effort though. You'll get muddy and dirty and wet. Cold too. Dad always stayed high and dry and sent me into the swamps when I was a kid. It was great fun. Falling and laughing, permission to get as dirty as possible. I lost my shoe a few times.
I still head out to the swamps and marshes to gather Cossacks asparagus. I'm a little wiser now, ok, maybe not. Just last spring I lost a shoe. Usually I go barefoot, but the person I was with made a big fuss about it. I got to say "I told you so" and have reverted back to my bare foot ways.
This spring, if you're looking for a fun outing for the family, try gathering some wild asparagus or cattails. You probably won't find enough to survive a winter on, but you will have fun and create some long-lasting memories.
Many thanks go to Equilibrium, kennedyh, and floridian for their wonderful photos in Plant Files.