Early spring is the time to stalk, search and forage for wild asparagus. Identifying wild asparagus is easier than you think, and the problem is, finding it in the right season. Asparagus isn’t foraged you see, it’s stalked…long before it’s ready the hunt begins.
(This post is a contribution by Melissa Keyser)
Yesterday morning’s nature adventure started out like any other trip. I was at my favorite spot along the river, letting the dog get some exercise and I was getting in my daily nature fix.
As we always do, Stella and I quickly moved off the main pathway and followed our a faint winding trail that weaves under willows and cottonwoods. We crossed sandy bars and the round cobbles that make up the exposed river bottom.
I was observing signs of new growth and watched the birds flit from tree to tree. As we curved along a path and she took off chasing a squirrel up a cottonwood, my heart started racing. I looked around, surely, there must be other people seeing what I was seeing. It was a much anticipated day, a rare discovery.
I had spotted the new tender tips of wild asparagus.
How to Find Wild Asparagus
Anyone familiar with foraging or has any background relating to a culture involving crunchy granola, wheatgrass, or Birkenstocks is probably aware of the infamous forager Euell Gibbons, and his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus.
His book is aptly named because wild asparagus isn’t like other wild foods that you forage for, hunting them on a day-trip or stumbling across them on adventures. Asparagus is herbaceous, meaning the plant dies back to the ground in the winter.
It’s near impossible to stumble across tender spears, emerging from the ground from their ancient crowns. They don’t easily reveal themselves to the casual passerby.
Instead, the wild asparagus is stalked. You need to know the signs, looking for its tracks, stalking months, even seasons, before.
I had come across this stand of the wild asparagus on a prior wander, in the height of summer. That’s the best time to start your stalking, as the tender tips have long since grown tall, and are now a bush of fine foliage and the red berries containing the seeds stand out against the dark green of the leaves. Sometimes 6′ tall, these fronds leave no confusion that there is a healthy crown of asparagus growing here, urging your return at a later time.
By fall, the fronds start to die back, turning first bright yellow, then brown and dropping the berries (which are poisonous, so don’t eat!). This is the time to make mental note (or, if you’re on private land, leave a flag) remembering where to look when spring arrives. If you’re lucky, some of the stems will remain standing through winter, a convenient marker for the keen forager, the lifeline for finding the spears in a sea of spring grass and new growth.
Where to Find Wild Asparagus
In North America, there is no actual wild asparagus. Any that you find foraging is the same as the stuff you buy in the store or grow in your home garden, it’s simply escaped and is now growing in the wild. Feral, or perhaps rouge, asparagus.
Most likely spread by seeds, carried by birds, you’ll commonly find stands of wild asparagus growing in regions where asparagus is commercially grown. I live near the San Joaquin Delta, which is a big asparagus farming area. Perhaps my foraged feral asparagus came from these commercial plants, or perhaps, just a nearby home garden.
You will find wild asparagus growing in the sun and close to (but not in) water. Look in drainage ditches, edges of marshes, or along river or stream edges. They do not like salt water. Unless you are on a rarely used rural road, I’d avoid any that are growing roadside.
You’ll find the spears poking out of the soil in early spring, which will obviously vary from place to place. In my area in Northern California, it’s right around the second week of February. It comes upon you quick, and I thought it was too early in the year.
I probably could have started checking about a week ago. In colder areas, it comes up much later. In Northern New England, you won’t see wild asparagus until Mid to Late May.
How to Harvest Wild Asparagus
The best case scenario would be to use a knife or clippers and cut the steam off right at or slightly below ground level. I had not planned on collecting, so didn’t have any equipment with me, so simply dug my fingers into the soil and snapped the spear off.
Choose spears that have tight tops and are firm. Asparagus grows fast, about an inch a day, and as the individual stalk starts to age and stretch up, the little triangular leaf’s tips start to branch out and become ‘looser’. You’ll want to avoid those!
Asparagus crowns (that’s what the roots are called) will continue to produce spears for several weeks, so return often. But just like when growing asparagus in the garden, you want to leave several spears to grow up. Otherwise, you may weaken or even kill the plant.
If the spear emerges the width of a pencil or smaller, the plant is exhausting itself and you should let it be.
How to Prepare Wild Asparagus
If you aren’t using your asparagus right away, stand them up in a jar with about an inch of water. If left on the counter with fresh water daily, I find they keep for about a week.
You’ll want to prepare your foraged wild asparagus just the same way you would prepare asparagus from the market. Deborah Madison, my go-to reference for anything vegetable, offers the following advice:
“To trim thin asparagus, hold the stalk in one hand at the bottom and the other a few inches away. Bend the asparagus gently and let it snap where the tender and tough parts meet. With thick asparagus, you’re better off cutting…look for a color change in the stalk. Cut it there. For especially thick ones, peel about two-thirds of the way up with a potato peeler.”
Enjoy your foraged wild asparagus hot, at room temperature, or chilled. You can steam, boil, stir-fry, grill or sautee, my very favorite way is roasting.