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Aspiring Asparagus

By Audrey Stallsmith

asparagus officinalis

One morning the gardener went to him and told him, as if to please him, that he was going to plant a bed of asparagus for his especial use. Now, since, as every one knows, asparagus takes four years in coming to perfection, this civility infuriated Monsieur de Beaufort.

Alexandre Dumas--Twenty Years After

Granted asparagus may be slow to establish itself. And it can be finicky, preferring saline soils like those on seacoasts. But, over the centuries, even kings have considered the "king of vegetables" worth the wait.

As asparagus has such a short season, the ancient Romans dispatched it by fast chariot to the Alps where it could be kept frozen. Although they had a saying that translates to "as quick as cooking asparagus," maybe they should have said, "as quick as transporting asparagus" instead! Later, Louis XIV ordered his gardeners to grow the vegetable in greenhouses year round.

The Greeks named it aspharagos, probably derived from the Persian asparag or "shoot." But the name eventually degenerated, for the common people, into "sparrow grass." They considered the term "asparagus" affected!

No doubt the plant itself was often considered "uppity" due to its aristocratic connections. But bunches of the spears received the more homely designation "Battersea bundles" after a town where they were much grown.

Herbalist John Gerard called the plant "sperage" when he wrote that it "hath at his first rising out of the ground thicke tender shoots very soft and brittle. . .having at the top a certaine scaly soft bud. . ., which in time groweth to a branch of the height of two cubits (three feet), divided into divers other smaller branches, wheron are set many little leaves like haires. . .amongst which come forth small mossie yellowish floures which yeeld forth the fruit, green at the first, afterward as red as Corall, of the bignesse of a small pease. . ."

You want to harvest your asparagus before those 'scaly soft buds ' begin to unfurl, however, because it will be too tough after. Garden lore recommends that the spears be cut an inch below the soil line to prevent disease. And, in preparing asparagus for cooking, smart cooks generally whack off and discard the toughest couple inches at the base of each stalk.

Like most vegetables, asparagus is good for you, being low in calories and high in Vitamin A, folic acid, and potassium. On the downside it "causes a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine, as everybody knows." (Louis Lemery, 1702) That odor has been blamed on sulphur compounds, and not everyone can detect it.

The spears are laxative and diuretic, contain cancer-fighting glutathione, and reportedly help dissolve uric acid and cholesterol build-ups as well. John Heinerman recommends using the cooled water in which asparagus was boiled to cleanse the face of blackheads, pimples, and the like.

If you don't like green vegetables, you might want to try spargel--white asparagus--instead. Grown under heaps of soil that exclude light, it reportedly tastes even sweeter than the green variety.

But most of us find regular asparagus delectable enough, though we do have a tendency to smother it with cream sauces and soups. Like the spring season, its quintessential vegetable represents life that returns again and again, no matter how often cut down.

Image is from Herbarium Blackwellianum by Elizabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.