Garden Gossip

by Ted Smith

The “King of Vegetables,” according to France’s King Louis XIV, was none other than the simultaneously unassuming yet decadent asparagus. Queen Nefertiti agreed and proclaimed asparagus to be the food of the gods. Here in northern gardens, asparagus is one of the most welcome harbingers of summer and is a “must have” vegetable in any serious vegetable garden. While we have previously talked about asparagus in Garden Gossip, that was a few years back and there have been several recent requests to dust the topic off and take a little refresher look. Apparently, quite a few people are looking at tackling asparagus as a new garden crop in the near future.

While no one has been able to pin point the exact origins of asparagus plants, throughout history it has been known to grow across Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. An ancient Egyptian frieze dating back to 3,000 BC clearly depicts a bundle of asparagus spears. The oldest cookbook still in existence even contains instructions on preparing this delicacy. The ancient Greeks and Romans were especially fond of asparagus. The vegetable was eaten in large quantities while it could be harvested fresh. Great amounts were also dried for later use and one Roman Emperor even developed a fleet of chariots (The Asparagus Fleet) to carry asparagus to the Alps where it was frozen. The same chariots would retrieve the frozen vegetables for later use during the Feast of Epicurus. Another Roman emperor was known to define “haste” as “quicker than you should cook asparagus”. Asparagus quickly gained esteem in the eyes of consumers everywhere it spread. The aforementioned King Louis XIV was so enamored of asparagus that he had greenhouses built with the specific intent of growing a year-round crop. 

Over the centuries, asparagus has spread to, and become incredibly important in, such diverse countries as Russia, China, the United States and Peru. In China, asparagus is candied and treated as a sweet delicacy. Peru, while far from the traditional home of asparagus, has become a world power in asparagus production and currently accounts for almost half of the world’s asparagus exports. The United States, by comparison, produces less than 10 percent of world exports. Seventy percent of this production occurs in California which sees annual production rates of over fifty thousand tons. Canada, by comparison, grows under ten thousand tonnes annually. 

Even the word “asparagus” has developed across a wide cross section of countries and languages. While “Asparagus officinalis” is the currently accepted scientific name of asparagus, the history of the word is quite muddied. Originally, asparagos (aspharagos) was a Greek word used to refer to any vegetable that was eaten in the early green spear or sprout stage. Even this was apparently borrowed from the Persians who referred to vegetable shoots and spears as asparag. Later, medieval Latin interpreted the word as sparagus while classical Latin went with asparagus. Middle English first recognized asparagus as sperage or sparage. Later English somehow managed to arrive at the same asparagus as classic Latin had held to all along. Subsequently, the terms sparagus, sparagrass and finally sparrow grass have also been used but never gained wide acceptance. Phew. That’s a lot of confusion surrounding one small plant.

And to add to the confusion, science has also decided to redefine exactly what asparagus plants are, or are not. For the longest time asparagus was widely grouped in the lily family with numerous other plants such as onions and garlic. When you compare the appearance of newly emergent asparagus spears to the appearance of young lily shoots, it’s easy to see the connection there, but it’s harder to tie asparagus to the alliums. Recently, the lily family was split into several groups. The alliums have since joined the Amaryllidaceae family while asparagus has been split off into its own family referred to as Asparagaceae. For a plant that is so simple to grow and so simple to cook, asparagus has led quite a confusing existence.

So all of the above has just been an extended introduction. Asparagus has already proven to be a true world citizen amongst vegetables. Considering that asparagus originated in warmer climates such as Egypt and Syria, it seems amazing that it has proven so hardy and adaptable to harsher northern growing conditions. Be sure to come back next week when we dig in and discuss all the dos and don’ts of growing asparagus right here in our northern gardens.