Asparagus officinalis, or common asparagus, is the regular variety that is cultivated by people across the globe, but it’s also the most common type that you’ll find in the wild. It escapes from kitchen gardens and allotments and goes “feral”, reverting back to its natural state quickly, where it produces large numbers of long, slender stems. It makes a great “gateway to foraging” because it’s already common to many households and it’s easy to identify, so there’s little risk of accidentally mistaking it for something harmful or unpalatable.
It’s been used for thousands of years as a food crop and for medicinal purposes, with strong evidence that it was widely cultivated in Ancient Rome and Greece, and depictions on the walls of Egyptian tombs dating back as far as the 1st century BCE.
Identifying Wild Asparagus
Asparagus, when ready to harvest, has a distinctive appearance. It grows in clusters of delicate, straight stems that feature spear-like tips and scale-like leaves along the length of the stem. It’s at this point, while the stems are immature, that you want to harvest.
These straight spears are devilishly difficult to spot, as they blend in incredibly well with other plants and is often hidden amongst clumps of taller plants. So, the easiest way to find it is to identify the mature or dead plant, map it out, mark its location, and be ready to revisit the same spot at harvest time.
The spears open out and turn into tall, wispy fern-type plants. As this starts to happen, the stems turn woody and are no good for eating. They can grow up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) once they reach maturity. Once the shoots begin to mature and the fern-like growth appears, the plants flower, producing yellow to green bell-shaped flowers. If pollinated, berries, which eventually turn red, appear. Once the berries fall, the plant turns tan brown as the nutrients return to the crowns beneath the soil.
When and Where to Find Wild Asparagus
Wild asparagus is wily, and often poses a challenge to find, particularly for novices. However, once you’ve spotted some, if you harvest responsibly, you’ll be able to return to the same spots every year.
Look for the mature plants at the end of summer, and the dead, brown plants in late autumn or over winter. Mark the sites on a map, or with a handy geotagging function on your smartphone. That way, when late spring arrives, you can head right to the asparagus shoots, without hours of frustrating hunting.
You’ll find asparagus growing in sunny, grassy locations. It favors well-drained soil and plenty of sun. It’s also common to find it in coastal regions, growing along clifftops and dunes.
How to Harvest Wild Asparagus
To harvest asparagus, use a sharp knife or a decent Swiss army knife. If you snap the stalk or try to pull it up, you will damage the crown and the rhizomes beneath the soil. Cut the stem close to the ground and place in a basket long enough to not bend the stems during transport. Don’t be greedy. It’s false economy. Asparagus, because of its crown and rhizomatous growth, take energy and nutrients from the plants it produces, therefore, you have to harvest in moderation. If you take every shoot that appears, you’ll quickly kill the crown, and will have to go find a whole new patch of asparagus for the following year. Taking half of the tender stems is perfectly acceptable, as it leaves plenty of growth to return energy and nutrients to the crown, so that it can reproduce the following season. If you harvest in this responsible fashion, you’ll be able to return to the same area for years to come.
Although the stems are thinner, so require shorter cooking times, wild asparagus is as versatile as cultivated asparagus and should be cooked in the same way. Steam, poach, or roast it and add it to risottos, quiches, salads, and alone as a side dish. You can get a little more creative and wrap stems in bacon or prosciutto, then roast them, too. For the best flavour and to retain the highest levels of nutrients, it’s crucial not to overcook the stems, for which a light saute or gentle steaming works well.
Asparagus has been in use for at least 2,000 years as a remedy for digestive health – and current research shows that the ancients were right, as they so often were. Thanks to high levels of the protein inulin, asparagus does indeed improve digestive health. This protein doesn’t get broken down in the small intestine, like the vast majority of others. Instead, it remains whole until it reaches the large intestine, where it becomes a healthy food source for beneficial digestive flora and helps your body to absorb more nutrients, more efficiently.
The shoots and roots of asparagus contain large amounts of phytonutrients – particularly saponins, which have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, according to multiple scientific studies. Saponins are also closely linked to a reduction in blood pressure, blood sugar regulation, blood fat regulation. With exceptionally high levels of antioxidant nutrients, including vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, and manganese, along with glutathione, combined with its anti-inflammatory properties, asparagus rank highly as a risk reducer for heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and premature ageing.