Asparagus

Appears in

asparagus is the young shoot of a curious plant, Asparagus officinalis, of the lily family. There are several other Asparagus spp, native to various parts of the Old World.

The wild form of A. officinalis grows in marshy places in Europe, e.g. in Poland and Russia. In the cultivated form, selective breeding and special growing techniques have combined to give a greatly thickened, fleshy shoot which has been prized as a delicacy since ancient times. However, the much thinner shoots of wild asparagus are often edible and are still eaten.

The name ‘asparagus’ was used in classical Greece and Rome. Bitting (1937) traces it back to the Persian word asparag, meaning a sprout, and recounts the subsequent development of the name in English. ‘Sperage’ was current in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was displaced by ‘sparagus’ and by the appealing term ‘sparrow grass’. During the 19th century ‘asparagus’ took over, and ‘sparrow grass’ came to be thought of as a term used by the illiterate. However, ‘grass’ has remained in use among those who grow or process asparagus.

The early Greeks are not known to have cultivated the plant, but the Romans grew asparagus in their gardens from quite early times, as Cato and Columella attest. By the 1st century AD Pliny the Elder could describe asparagus spears grown at Ravenna, in heavily manured soil, as being ‘three to the pound’ (larger than modern kinds). Pliny’s ascription of medicinal virtues to asparagus was echoed and amplified in later centuries; its medical reputation may have been helped by the noticeable although harmless odour which it imparts to the urine of most but not all of those who eat it. The specific name officinalis means ‘of the dispensary’.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, asparagus cultivation continued in Syria, Egypt, and Spain, with help from the Arabs who occupied all these countries. Eventually it arrived in the main part of Europe: France before 1469 and England by 1538. Cultivation was well below the standard reached by the Romans; Gerard’s Herbal of 1597 describes the shoots as being only the size of a large swan’s quill, thinner than a pencil.

Asparagus was not grown on a large scale in N. America until the latter half of the 19th century. During the same period it was spread to China and the Malay peninsula by European influence. The Malay name, saparu keras, is evidently a corruption of ‘sparrow grass’.

The peculiar way in which asparagus has to be grown explains its high price. For the first two years after sowing, a bed of asparagus is unproductive. In the third year the shoots are thick enough to be marketed, and the bed continues to yield good asparagus for another couple of seasons, but quality then declines. So at any given time a grower has half his land in an unproductive state. Furthermore, careful tending and hand harvesting are essential.

The careful tending used to include some strange practices, including the burial of horns, especially those of sheep, in the beds. Remarking on this, Bitting (1937), whose essay on all aspects of asparagus and its production and conservation is unrivalled, observes that the detailed description of asparagus husbandry given in Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s Cookery (1744) can serve to represent standard European practice of that time, which is in turn the foundation of modern practice.

Sometimes the asparagus bed is earthed up to keep the shoots white, and they are excavated and cut when they appear at the surface. In Belgium, Germany, and most of France white is preferred. In Britain, most of Italy, and much of the USA (but with local differences) coloured asparagus is usual; but asparagus which is grown for canning is almost always blanched.

Asparagus is normally cooked, preferably by steaming in the special tall utensil designed for the purpose. Conventionally it is served lukewarm, not hot, with melted butter or hollandaise or some such rich, mild-flavoured sauce. However, eating asparagus raw is not unknown. John Evelyn (1699) wrote that ‘sperage’ was ‘sometimes, but very seldom, eaten raw with oyl, and Vinegar’, and the most tender spears are occasionally still eaten raw, especially in the USA.

The asparagus of Argenteuil, near Paris, enjoyed great fame from around 1830, when a certain M. Lhérault-Salbœuf began to introduce improvements in asparagus-growing. These led to giant blanched stalks which, according to one critic, had no flavour and would only be eaten for the sauce. The quest for ever larger stalks resulted, by the 1930s, in some which measured up to 18 cm (7") in circumference and over half a kilo (1.25 lb) in weight. However, Parisians preferred the asparagus of Argenteuil to any other kind. At least two important cultivars are named for Argenteuil. Cultivation there ceased in 1990, but the methods used live on elsewhere.

Jersey Giant, with purple tips, is one of several varieties which compete in terms of heavy production and size of shoots; it has the advantage of being a purely male type (the male being, in this particular arena, more vigorous than the female). Some varieties are naturally dark green, some light green, and some violet.

Because cultivated asparagus is expensive, substitutes have been used. Some are wild species, e.g. A. acutifolius, of the Mediterranean region, which has a particularly strong flavour. Others include the shoots of both wild and cultivated hops, humulus lupulus, known as ‘hop tops’.

So-called ‘Bath asparagus’ in England is Ornithogalum pyrenaicum, a beautiful wild lily which was formerly sufficiently abundant to be gathered before flowering and sold in the markets at Bath and Bristol, for eating like asparagus.