Euell Gibbons, the author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, describes the preciousness of asparagus well when he writes, “I doubt that young people today can realize how good the first green vegetables of spring tasted in those days before quick freezing and fast transportation began furnishing us with fresh green vegetables all winter.” Asparagus, wild or cultivated, seem to be able to nurture a nostalgia and appreciation for the first signs of spring like few other vegetables. I like to think that the people of Eastern Europe, the Caucuses and Siberia, where asparagus originates, shared a similar relief and excitement for the sight and taste of asparagus after enduring a long winter.
Asparagus ferns dance in the the wind in an asparagus field in Esparto, California.
Out of the 150 wild species of asparagus only one species, Asparagus officinalis, is cultivated for its tender shoots. The cultivation of asparagus can be traced back to 65 A.D. by the Romans, who spread their knowledge of asparagus cultivation throughout Europe as they grew their Empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire, asparagus only remained a popular cultivar in Spain, with the exception of some feudal lords and for use in monastery gardens as a medicinal plant.
Precoce D'Argenteuil Asparagus is a stunning heirloom variety from France! (photo compliments of Fotolia)
However, the Renaissance brought a resurgence of the cultivated asparagus. Asparagus became named after the provinces in which it was grown throughout Germany, France, England and the Netherlands, with names such as Violet Dutch and Ghent. By the 19th century, the French cultivar Argenteuil had gained great popularity. It began to replace other local varieties and today remains the parent for breeding new varieties such as, Reading Giant in England, Palmetto in the U.S. and Precoce D’Argenteuil in France. Precoce means “early” in Italian for an earlier maturing Argenteuil. Precoce D’Argenteuil asparagus have beautiful rose-colored buds and tender stalks that are commonly blanched by hilling up the soil around the stalks as they grow. A traditional heirloom favorite in Europe and the U.S., the seed is grown in Italy.
To purchase Precoce D'Argenteuil Asparagus Seeds go HERE
Mary Washington Asparagus is known for higher yields and disease resistance while maintaining superb taste.
The Romans were not the only ones responsible for spreading asparagus seeds. Birds also helped to scatter both wild and cultivated asparagus seed, bringing wild asparagus to the U.S. Both the wild and European cultivated varieties of asparagus made it easy for Americans enthusiasm for asparagus to grow. Making way for the still popular asparagus variety, Mary Washington. Mary Washington was developed over 13 years of breeding research by the Department of Agriculture in Concord, MA in 1906. The project was started by the Massachusetts Growers Association in partnership with the Bureau of Plant Industry and Agricultural Experiment Station to work on rust issues and to breed for rust resistant varieties. Varieties from all over the world were sent to the experiment station, grown out and not one was found to be completely rust resistant. However selections were made from these trials and crossed with Reading Giant from Sutton and Sons Seed Company in Reading, England. There were three Washington varieties selected out of this cross. The 1922 Market Growers Journal describes the difference between the three Washington cultivars: Washington, Martha Washington and Mary Washington. Mary Washington received enthusiastic reviews for having bigger seed, higher yields, more vigorous growth and rust resistance, while maintaining a great flavor and texture.
To purchase Mary Washington Asparagus Seeds go HERE
Trying these cultivated varieties in your garden may help to continue or spur a deep appreciation for the first spring green, as Euell Gibbons mentions. I remember eating asparagus out of my grandmother’s garden; fresh crunchy spears good for snacking on or rich and comforting as a soup. When I moved to northern New Mexico it had been a long time since I had had fresh asparagus. Walking one day along the acequia (water ditch) that fed my farm fields, I spotted a similar thin spear emerging from the ground. I smiled at the sight of such a green wonder, standing tall in the high desert landscape, finding refuge in the bank of the water ditch. I marveled at how far I was from the upstate New York garden of my grandmothers, and yet how familiar the excitement for the first greens of spring felt. I harvested asparagus that day and ate asparagus soup for the first time in many years.
Jim Gettle harvests Mary Washington asparagus at the Baker Creek farm in Mansfield, Missouri.
To purchase Heirloom Asparagus Seeds Go HERE