Those pointy little spears that we all look forward to as the winter leaves us are a sure sign that warmer days are near. Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) simply sings of spring. It starts appearing in the supermarket produce aisles about this time, however home grown asparagus is far superior to the selections at the market and don't even consider buying what passes for asparagus in a can.

Early Asparagus History

People have had a love affair with this vegetable for millennia with the oldest recorded recipe for asparagus published over 3000 years ago. Asparagus is native to the Mediterranean Basin and was loved by the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Spaniards and Syrians and the Egyptians even offered it up to their gods.

The early asparagus spears were not as thick as they are today, however we should thank the Romans who used selective breeding to produce a more robust plant. The Romans also considered it an aphrodisiac because of the ehhh 'shape' of the spears. The Roman emperor Augustus thought so highly of asparagus that he built a whole fleet of ships just to ferry it to the city. They also learned that asparagus tolerated salt better than other plants, so scattered that in their planting areas as a natural weed control.The Romans and Greeks also gave us the name we know it by. Both cultures called it asparag, which means 'shoot' or 'spear' in either language. Europeans further north modified the name a bit to sparagus and the common folk simply called it 'sparrow grass'. All of the cultures considered it medicinal and used it as a diuretic since people who consume asparagus produce urine with a foul odor. They figured that the asparagus was purging the body of illness, infection or bad spirits.

Grow your own asparagus

Growing asparagus isn't all that difficult. You do need a special bed because asparagus is a perennial plant and the roots can produce for as long as 25 years. Naturally, a regular garden area where the crops are all annual and live only one season would be hard to maintain with the asparagus growing in the middle. Many gardeners plant their asparagus crowns at the edge of their garden space or use raised beds in another part of their property. Raised beds are a smart option because the soil is usually well-drained and asparagus does not do well in boggy conditions. Plant asparagus crowns as early in the spring as the ground can be worked. It needs at least 8 hours of full sun each day and gardeners should not harvest it at all the first season. Let it grow and produce the ferny leaves. This is providing the asparagus plants with the energy they need to expand the root system and produce more shoots when you do harvest. Mulch with several inches organic mulch and feed with a balanced fertilizer. A 10-10-10 make-up is excellent. Gardeners can lightly harvest their asparagus in its second year and then take a full harvest in the third season, however leave at least 1 or 2 spears to grow for each plant. Cut the spears at ground level with a knife or scissors and leave the ones that are smaller than a pencil to grow. Once harvest time is over, (the spears will start to sprout the ferny leaves and become tough) leave the ferns to grow so that they can replenish the strength in the roots for next season. Cut the foliage back to the ground in late winter and wait for the shoots to appear for the next harvest. Pests are asparagus beetles, cutworms and slugs, however Bambi doesn't like it, so if deer plague your vegetable patch, plant some asparagus.

Asparagus nutrition

The ancients were on to something when they loved asparagus. It is extremely nutritious and has a number of health benefits. It is 93% water, and one cup of asparagus is only 40 calories, so that makes it a great food for people who need to watch their weight. Asparagus contains Vitamins C, B6 and E, beta carotene, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and significant fiber. Potassium is important because it helps reduce blood pressure naturally. Vitamin E helps boost immunity. Vitamin B6 helps maintain healthy brain activity and magnesium is important for bone development. Asparagus also contains a compound called glutathione which research has discovered is a natural detoxifer and it also breaks down carcinogens. Cancer researchers are doing more tests to see exactly how effective it is, but it wouldn't hurt to add asparagus to our diets.

grilled cheese with avocado and asparagus

Using asparagus in recipes

The most common way to cook asparagus is in boiling water. This is usually done in a tall, slender pot where the tougher stems sit in the water and the more tender tops are cooked by steam. Fresh, young asparagus cooks quickly. The ancient Romans even had a saying "as quick as cooking asparagus", meaning the task did not take very long! However, asparagus is often roasted, used in stir frys, added to salads and baked in main dish meats like chicken, salmon and lamb chops. One of my new favorite lunches is an avocado, asparagus and swiss cheese grilled cheese sandwich. See the image above. Take rustic, whole grain bread, add some mashed avocado, sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and lemon juice. Add spears of roasted asparagus and top with swiss cheese. Grill in a bit of butter until the cheese is melted and the bread is toasted. A brand-new comfort food! This is a great way to use leftover roasted asparagus...if there is any leftover! I usually have to cook it just for the sandwich. Any way you serve it, asparagus is a sure sign that winter is on the run and spring is here.