May 4, 2014

Asparagus offers a taste of spring

Asparagus is one of a few perennial vegetables that can be reliably grown in the North Country. For gardeners and consumers alike, it is one of the most anticipated early-season, local-garden crops and a sure sign that warmer weather is coming. I’ve heard it called “one of the true delights of the season” and described as “spring on a plate.”

Gardeners have been growing asparagus for more than 2,000 years. Its name comes from the ancient Persian word “asparag” or “aspharagos,” which means shoot or sprout. It is believed to be native to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Its origin as a cultivated crop appears to date back to ancient Egypt, where it was apparently held in such high regard it was offered to their gods.

Records dating back to the first century A.D. confirm asparagus being harvested in the eastern Mediterranean (Rome, Greece and Spain). While it would appear that the Greeks and Spaniards gathered wild asparagus, the Romans were cultivating it in season and drying what was not immediately used.

By the 16th Century, asparagus was known across Europe and praised in culinary literature in France and England where it became known as “sparagus” by the more refined and better educated and “sparrow grass” by the peasants. It was grown not just for its rich, savory flavor and epicurean characteristics, but for its medicinal qualities and as an aphrodisiac (not proven).

Although there is no documentation, it is widely accepted that the early colonists brought asparagus roots to the New World and pioneers carried it with them as they traveled west. It has been grown in North America since and can be found growing wild in places where it has escaped from cultivation, often flourishing beside rivers, streams and along the seacoast. Wild asparagus is so prevalent in some locations that debate continues about whether it is actually native.

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