Picking wild asparagus is often the first step a person takes toward learning to forage wild food. Although not technically a “wild” plant, more of an escapee from gardens via seeds and birds, asparagus grows very wild in most places across the U.S. and Canada.
And, because fresh dew-covered wild asparagus is completely delectable, both raw and lightly cooked, it is well worth the hunt.
Finding wild asparagus
Wild asparagus is one plant that is easier to locate during the winter and early spring than it is mid-spring. Therefore, the best scouting for your asparagus is during these months. You’ll be looking for “bushes” of asparagus fern, often dotted with red “berries”—the seeds of the female plants.
In the summer and fall, these asparagus bushes are bright green. Mature, heavily rooted asparagus bushes can grow waist-high or higher, and are bigger around than a person can hug. They are light and airy, with delicate leaves.
In the winter, the plants turn a bright yellow, which fades to a yellowish tan with time. The color makes the bushes stand out among snow and stark grass and bare branches.
Most wild asparagus is found along roadsides, usually along fences or irrigation ditches (in the west). After all, seed is eaten by birds and birds perch on fences. We know what those birds do, besides perch, right? Instantly fertilized asparagus seeds. Likewise, you’ll also often find asparagus growing on the south sides of trees and along brushy edges of farm fields. Those good old birds, again.
Irrigation ditches both distribute fallen seeds and water the plants as they germinate and grow to maturity.
Another good bet is around abandoned old homestead and farm sites. Often old garden asparagus has spread to quite large patches by means of dropped seeds and those birds again. Of course, always get permission to explore and pick asparagus on private property. The roadside is public domain in most areas.
Drive around quiet country lanes and roadsides slowly, watching for asparagus bushes. Take a notebook and a map of the area. Also, bring a skein of red yarn. Your first asparagus plant may be a bit hard to discover, but once you see what you’re looking for, they’re easy to spot. If in doubt, take an experienced gardener along on your first exploration trip. I also know of no poisonous plant that can be confused with asparagus.
Stop! There’s a couple of plants over there by that old fence. Park your vehicle safely and take out your map, marking an “X” where you found your asparagus. Now take a piece of yarn a foot long or so and tie a nice bow in a conspicuous place near, but not on, the plant. If there are several plants nearby in the general vicinity, make note in your notebook, but don’t tie more bows. You don’t want to alert other asparagus hunters.
And there are a lot of folks who hunt asparagus in the spring. Continue your exploration, making notes in your notebook, marking Xs on your map, and tying red yarn bows to help remind you where those plants are.
Remember, during mid-spring when you’ll return to pick your tender spears, the weeds, grass, and brush will be lush and partially hide your quarry.
Should you not begin to hunt asparagus until the spring, simply watch for green, mature asparagus plants. Then stop and cut the entire plant off below the surface of the ground and mark your location by yarn and in your notebook. I toss the plant off, as other hunters would be happy to cut your patch. No need to make it too easy by leaving the cut plant.
Cautions about picking wild asparagus
Be careful not to pick wild asparagus where there is a possibility of agricultural chemicals or county road weed killers having been sprayed on your future food.
I don’t pick asparagus close to heavily cropped areas, especially orchards (with plenty of spraying). Hayfields, pastures, and woods are generally safe neighbors to your wild asparagus bed.
I also stay clear of asparagus growing next to very busy highways or an expressway because of heavy fumes from traffic. While gasoline sold today is lead-free, lead stays in the soil for a long, long time, and I’d just as soon eat lead-free wild asparagus.
Asparagus begins to grow in early mid-spring. This time differs, depending on the growing zone and weather you live in. It’s generally about right to begin hunting asparagus spears when the spring grass is beginning to grow well. You won’t find asparagus coming up before the grass is growing, but if you wait too long, it’ll be harder to find because the rank grass will hide it until it is over-mature.
I carry a large basket and a small, sharp pocketknife. You want the most tender asparagus you can find. So don’t pick in the heat of the day. I go out, first thing in the morning, often when the dew is still heavy on the grass. The asparagus spears you harvest then will be melt-in-your-mouth tender.
The ideal spear will be fat, the tip tightly closed and perhaps eight inches tall. The top will be purplish green and the lower portion will be white. These spears grow quickly— overnight, it seems.
Unfortunately, the taller they grow, the tougher and more woody the spear gets. Taste store-bought asparagus to see what I mean. But even the longer spears can be harvested. Just cut the whole thing off at or below ground level, then snap the top off with your fingers where it will break. Throw the lower part away, and keep the top; you have the most tender part of the long spear.
You can either cut the spears with a sharp knife, at or below ground level, or snap them off with your thumb and first finger, right at ground level. Notice that we cut all asparagus off at ground level, even the tough, longer spears.
This is to keep the plant producing. Some folks mistakenly let the long spears go and just harvest the tender spears poking up nearby. Unfortunately, this signals the plant to quit producing spears and production abruptly stops, leaving only the one tall fern to mature.
For this reason, you need to cut off all mature ferns from any plant group you want to harvest. If you come on a mature patch, simply cut all ferns off, toss ‘em away and return in about a week. You’ll find a nice bunch of tender spears poking out of the grass, just waiting for you.
If I’m seriously hunting wild asparagus to can or dehydrate for the pantry, along with a good batch to eat, of course, I take a cooler with a layer of ice on the bottom. Over the ice goes a folded bath towel to keep the asparagus off the ice, yet cool. In a good day of hunting, we can fill a large cooler.
I always “pay off” informants with a nice batch of my best asparagus. Some folks are too old to hunt asparagus anymore, but can point out a great patch. Others hunt it on occasion, but really don’t want to bother. We greatly appreciate such tips and are generous with thanks and tender asparagus spears as well.
The best thing about asparagus (other than the taste) is that it is a cut-and-come-again plant. During the growing season, which extends over about a month, you can cut a batch and return in about four days to find as many or more spears rising up out of the grass to greet you.
Taming the wild asparagus
Not all wild plants take to being tamed, nor would you especially want them in your garden. We harvest bunches of lambs quarter and pigweed every year, but I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to plant them in their garden.
But asparagus is happy to be domesticated. Of course, there are more productive varieties of hybrid asparagus, such as the nearly all-male Jersey King and Jersey Knight. They put all their energy into producing spears, instead of seeds, and the spears are large and fat. But sometimes cash is tight, or you might actually want seeds to enlarge your asparagus plot. So consider the not-so-lowly wild asparagus.
I try to dig wild asparagus roots in the early spring, about the time the first shoots are being sent up. In this way, the plant has a good chance to recover from being divided and transplanted before winter comes.
One large, vigorous asparagus clump can provide you with a couple of dozen plants. The clump is formed of many individual plants, some quite large-rooted, some small. And they are all tangled with each other, making dividing them quite an interesting project.
Take a sharp spade and dig the entire clump up. First dig out away from the obvious spears, in a circle about eighteen inches in diameter, down about two feet. Then, carefully pry under the plant, from all sides, working it loose.
You will sweat and dig for half an hour if you dig carefully, so as not to injure the roots. Take sod and all. You’ll end up with what appears to be a dehydrated octopus with many, many fat, long roots. At this point, I carefully work loose one entire plant and replant it in the hole and tenderly cover it up. I never take all of anything, leaving something to reproduce, to go to seed, or feed others.
If there is a body of water nearby, carry/drag the clump to the water and soak it well, working away grassroots and soil. When you finish, there will be just the tangled asparagus plants. Now sit down in the shade and gently work the plants apart. Each has a crown, possibly with a tiny spear shoot budded at its top. And each has several long, brown fatish roots dangling down, from six inches to two feet.
As you free a plant, lay it under a damp burlap sack, in the shade. When you finish, you will often have over a dozen nice, healthy plants—and no grass roots—to take home to your garden. Of course, you can repeat this process at different locations until you have as many free plants as you need.
Remember, though, don’t dig plants from someone else’s land without permission. You sure wouldn’t want someone digging plants on your land.
As asparagus likes to be well-fed, your new home for the wildlings should be well tilled, with a good bucket of rotted compost worked in where each plant will be set out.
Dig a trench six inches deeper than the plant, allowing the roots to be spread out, but not bent and doubled up. Make a mound in the center and gently spread the roots out down its sides. Fill in the trench to the point that the crown is covered a bit. Then water well. Continue until all are happily planted.
As the spears grow, gradually fill in the trench until it is level with the soil around it. Then add a straw mulch over the row to hold back the weeds. Your wild asparagus is still spirited, but contentedly domesticated. And it will grow on, nearly forever, with very little special attention.
Home canning wild asparagus
Wild asparagus is very easy to home can. First, rinse and sort your asparagus. I choose the fattest, most tender spears to can as full spears, and the rest I cut into pieces.
Because asparagus is a low-acid food, as are all vegetables, it must be canned with a pressure canner. I recommend canning your asparagus the same day you pick it, as it doesn’t take too long before it gets tough or limp, just like store asparagus.
Simply put a big tea kettle of fresh water on, along with a pan to boil your jar lids in. Then, while the water is boiling, cut the spears into your jars. I cut off the tough lower end.
With a sharp knife begin cutting off first the very bottom, then on up an inch at a time, until your knife easily cuts the spear. The tougher ends may be simmered and put through a sieve for asparagus soup, canned at the same time you do your spears and/or pieces of asparagus.
I can both spears and inch-long pieces of asparagus. The spears I can in wide mouth jars, the pieces in regular jars, as the price of regular lids is much lower. But it’s much easier to get full spears neatly out of a wide mouth jar.
Pack the jars snugly to within an inch of the top of the jar. Then add half a teaspoonful of salt to pints and fill the jars to within an inch of the top with boiling water.
Wipe the rim of the jar clean, place a hot, previously boiled lid on, and screw the ring down firmly tight. Place the jars in a warm canner and process the jars at 10 pounds pressure (unless you live at an altitude above 1,000 feet; check canning manual for directions) for 30 minutes (pints) or 40 minutes (quarts).
It is easy to dehydrate asparagus at home successfully. I dry quite a bit as it is so handy to use in mixed vegetables and soups.
I pick out the nicest spears I have and rinse them well. Cut them into one-inch pieces and blanch for about three minutes; do not overdo the cooking.
Place in a single layer on your dehydrator trays and dehydrate at 125 degrees until brittle. If my spears are very fat, over half an inch thick, I also cut the pieces in half so they dry quickly. This also makes them rehydrate much faster.
Store the dried asparagus in airtight containers in a cool, dark place. My bottom cupboard shelves hold my dehydrated foods successfully, and the jars are handy, too.
To rehydrate the asparagus, simmer until tender in twice as much water as asparagus. Or add the dry asparagus to your soup or stew a half an hour before serving.
Wild asparagus can be used any way you use peas in shepherd’s pie, stews, soups, salads, pot pies, pasties, casseroles, or our favorite of favorites, raw, right from the wild patch. Seasoned with nothing but fresh, cold dew drops, this wild foraged vegetable can’t be beat.
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