Easier to find than mushrooms, hunting for wild asparagus can be a great family activity!
By Christi Byerly
People are often surprised to hear about one of my favorite spring activities – hunting wild asparagus. Many Midwesterners are familiar with hunting for other spring delicacies such as morel mushrooms, but when comparing mushrooms and asparagus, asparagus is actually much easier to find, has a longer growing season and weather doesn’t affect it near as much. Asparagus grows wild and abundantly right out in the open, usually along fencerows or in road-side ditches in most of the Midwestern states.
In my travels, I’ve seen countless patches along fences while driving along on the highway or Interstate; that’s how big and visible some clusters get! The uniform-sized spears you buy in the grocery store are a long way from what those sprouts grow up to be in an amazingly short amount of time.
While spring is the harvest season, late summer or early fall is the best time to scout the roadsides for next spring’s harvest of this healthy, tasty and, in this case, free vegetable.
There is no pattern as to where you’ll find wild asparagus. One theory is that these wild patches are the result of birds eating the seeds from fall plants and then expelling them. If the ground is the right mixture of fertilizers and nutrients, the seeds will root and be ready for picking in just a few years. In the right area, with healthy soil and good weather conditions, an asparagus patch can last and produce for as long as 30 years – even in the wild, with no green thumb gardener taking care of them.
Don’t expect to find hoards of asparagus clusters in one small area. You might find some massive patches, but if others know they are there, they will be prime picking once spring comes around. I once went to only the biggest, most productive patches nearest to my home, and even though I ended up putting 25 miles on my car, I had nearly 10 pounds of the freshest asparagus to show for my efforts! You might find a mile-long stretch that has half a dozen or more good-sized patches, then drive for 5 miles and see none.
Due to mowing by county maintenance crews, patches are rarely found in close proximity to the road. Rather, they are usually in or near the fence. I will not – and do not recommend – trespass by climbing over a fence, even for a few prime spears. If there is a patch near a home, I will ask the owners if they harvest it; if they do, I leave that one alone. Most farmers, however, are quick to allow you access with a courteous request.
After the six-week prime time for cutting during late April, May and early June, the spears continue to grow and the fronds spread out. Some of these stalks can grow to be as tall as 7 feet, and the male of the species will sprout green berries, which turn red as the season wears on. This is especially helpful, knowing that you have actually found asparagus rather than a look-alike weed. However, the berries are NOT EDIBLE and are poisonous to humans, so it is not advised to eat asparagus once the tips have started to spread out and develop tiny seeds on them.
Most clusters of asparagus are a dark, unique shade of green, which is another helpful ‘tool’ for identifying. As the weather gets colder, the stalks will turn from green to yellow and then to a light, golden brown. You will likely even come across patches that are half gold and half green.
Asparagus can grow as much as an inch an hour in ideal conditions, so once the picking time is over – between June 1st and June 15th – it doesn’t take long for the spears to shoot up and spread out. There may be patches of only three or four plants, while in other places you might find one to two dozen clumped together. Those are the ones to mark or record now in order to remember almost exactly where to search next spring.
Some asparagus hunters mark a patch by tying a ribbon on the fence near the patch, but that also alerts other asparagus hunters to the patch. I prefer to make a map with notes. A county plat map comes in handy as they have all paved and gravel roads marked as well as even dirt roads and creeks.
Asparagus starts to poke through the ground in late April, and when it’s time to hunt, look around the bases of old stalks. I usually break off the tops of the old stalks and pull some weeds to make my hunting easier. It is often very difficult to break off the old stalks at ground level; some are as tough as tree branches, but if you break them off a foot or so above ground level, you usually get what’s left of the old fronds and have only a stick poking up, making it much easier to find the new sprouts.
Also keep in mind that asparagus doesn’t all come up at once. I’ve had patches where I got eight to 10 nice-sized spears, only to come up empty-handed from a patch a mere 5 feet away. However, that’s a good thing; the next time you return to that area, the other patch will probably have started to come up. Also, as fast as it grows, within a week to 10 days, some of the stalks in a patch will already have spread out and passed the point of picking, but there may be new growth underneath if you look closely.
No matter how tall a spear gets, you should never snap off just the top. Cut it just below ground level; the spear will continue to grow. When a plant is snapped off too high, it prevents it from spreading out and that plant will die off and no longer produce.
Take advantage now of sharing some nice spring days with your family and let the kids have fun by spotting, harvesting and mapping out asparagus. And don’t forget eating! Enjoy!
Christi Byerly is a lifelong resident of southwest Iowa. Christi and her husband, Rich, are writers. She is an avid reader and is looking forward to summer, enjoying the garden, pool and tending to flowers.