Foraging: Wild Asparagus

What a long strange spring it has been.

I stopped the car along a busy county road on the way home from my daughter’s Spanish class today and picked about half a pound of free asparagus from the ditch. This is something that I have never done in April before. Usually asparagus doesn’t start to sprout until early May after a period of rain and warm temperatures.

I’ve been picking asparagus since I was a teenager—mostly in northern Wisconsin. (I was a fan of Euell Gibbon’s book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus.) I haven’t picked much here because there always seems to be someone there ahead of me. There are more people living in the southern half of the state and competition for delicacies like asparagus can be fierce!

There is no difference between the “wild” plants growing in the ditches and fencerows and those that you grow in your garden. Asparagus is not a native—it is a garden escape. It has been bred and refined, but the basic plant is the same. These rouge plants are propagated by birds that have eaten the red berries that mature on the female plants and then deposited them while perching on fences and telephone and electric wires.

My asparagus hunting begins in the summer and late fall. I scan the ditches while driving to nearby towns to garage sale or running errands. I watch for the tall feathery ferns of the mature plant. These ferns turn a vibrant Post-it-Note gold in the fall. I note landmarks bracketing the clumps of plants so I can remember where to start searching in the Spring.

As the winter progresses, the bright clumps fade to beige and are broken down by snow. Their heavy tops topple over and the long hollow stems fold over in the middle, forming inverted “V”s. The previous year’s broken-down growth and my landmarks are what lead me back to these clumps in the Spring. On particularly heavy snow years when the plows push the snow pack deep into the ditches, I may not even have the faded old growth to guide me and must totally depend on landmarks and new growth pushing up through tall grass.

When gathering asparagus, what you feel is almost as important as what you see. The asparagus I picked today was fairly easy to spot because it is some kind of a purple cross. The new spears stood out from the surrounding green grass. Most asparagus is the same green as the deep grass that it is growing among. I always sweep my hands through the grass around the clump of the previous year’s dry stalks so I don’t miss any new growth hiding in the tall grass.

Any asparagus that grows in the right-of-way along a public road is fair game for foragers. If you get out of that area, you are trespassing. I feel it is important to respect other people boundaries and resources, so I don’t forage on other people’s property without first asking permission and offering to share a portion of what I gather.

Asparagus is a good plant for a beginner to forage because the young stalks are so easy to identify accurately. Try gathering some in your area! Happy Hunting. Begonia

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