Asparagus Asparagus   -   Asparagus officinalis

Asparagus, native to Europe, North Africa and western Asia, has been the great herald of spring since before Roman times. Root clumps called crowns push up thick tender shoots which may grow more than 6 inches a day. Growers send crews into the field every day to cut those that are the right size to market.

Finally the roots become exhausted and the shoots they send are thin and fibrous. At this point the grower abandons the field and leaves the plants to "fern out", mature and gather energy into the roots for the next harvest. For the summer they make lacy green fronds (like the related asparagus fern) and in the fall they set red berries, turn yellow and dry (the berries are poisonous to humans).

I remember as a child on the farm finding wild asparagus plants and munching on the fern like fronds. Thin and fibrous, but they tasted like asparagus.   Photo © i0135 .

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General and History

The ancient Romans were very fond of asparagus, and they knew how to cook it. One writer described in a recipe that it should be "cooked just for moments, like asparagus". Louis XIV of France had special greenhouses constructed so he could have asparagus all year. Today asparagus has been carried worldwide and it even appears in Asian stir fries. Because it fetches a good price it has become a major export crop for some countries.

Growers of note - and market seasons are:

  • Peru (Sep - Dec and year round) is the second largest asparagus grower. About 35% of the crop is green asparagus for export to the U.S. while nearly all the rest is processed into cans and jars and shipped to Europe. An increasing amount of fresh white asparagus is being shipped to the U.S..
  • Mexico (Dec - Apr and year round except May) is the third largest grower with the entire crop being green asparagus, nearly all shipped to the U.S. where some is transshipped to Japan.
  • United States is the fourth largest grower and by far the world's major importer. U.S. exports are small with most going to Canada and some to Japan and Switzerland.
    • California (Jan - May, small crop Sept - Oct) - 75%+ of U.S. crop, all green, nearly all fresh.
    • Washington (Apr - Jun) - all green, some pickled and frozen.
    • Michigan (May - Jun) - all green - 15% fresh, 38% frozen, 62% canned.
  • China is by far the largest grower of asparagus. Nearly the entire crop is processed into cans and jars and shipped to Europe and worldwide, but almost none to the U.S. where green asparagus is favored.
  • Spain is Europe's largest producer followed by Germany and Greece. Nearly all is white asparagus.

Green Asparagus
Green Asparagus Green asparagus is the people's choice in North America where very little white asparagus is consumed - and that mostly on gourmet plates in fancy restaurants. Green asparagus is preferred fresh, and pretty much the entire California, Washington and Mexican crops are shipped fresh. Michigan produces some fresh but mostly frozen and canned asparagus.

Green asparagus generally comes in the three sizes shown in the photo. Thick (center) and "pencil thin" (back) are the normal sizes. Here in California we also have a size we can call "wire thin" (front) but I'm not sure any of that size is exported. Flavor is similar for all sizes but becomes a little more intense in the thinner sizes, which also are a little more fibrous. Which size you choose will depend on the recipe you choose (or the recipe may depend the size you can get). Thick asparagus is often peeled, pencil thin and wire thin never.

The photo samples were 9 inches long with the thick about 0.7 inches diameter (about average) the "pencil thin" about 0.4 inches and the "wire thin".25 inches and less diameter. All measurements were made at the thick end.

Purple Asparagus
Purplish green in color, little of this variety is grown in the U.S. but it has some popularity in Europe. It may be a nice color variation for raw vegetable plates, but like purple string beans it turns green when cooked. Definitely not not worth the extra price if you'll be cooking it.

White Asparagus
Field White asparagus is the same plant as green, but it's grown with a high pile of soil or mulch over it or tented with plastic sheeting. Since it sees no light it doesn't develop chlorophyll, but it also develops a fibrous skin so it is generally peeled.   Photo © i0134 .

White asparagus is the choice of Europe where very little green asparagus is consumed. Germany is the largest and most enthusiastic consumer of asparagus in Europe and has been increasing production, particularly grown under plastic sheeting for early harvest.

White asparagus has little flavor compared to green. Chefs like it, I think, because it provides body with almost no flavor to interfere with their most delicate sauces. It has to be cut rather short as well as peeled because the base is very fibrous. Personally I think this stuff is beyond redemption, but I'm not a gourmet, a gourmet chef or a German so what would I know?

The most commonly available white asparagus in California is from Peru, 7 inches long and 0.45 inches diameter - a size called "Standard".   Large, Extra Large and Jumbo are also listed but I think those sizes go to restaurants. Standard and large are PLU #4522, Extra Large and Jumbo #4523.

Health & Nutrition

Asparagus is a good source of vitamins A, C, B6, thiamin, folic acid, potassium, and obviously fiber (especially if you don't peel the lower stems). While low in sodium and calories, it is a rich source of rutin and a good source of glutathione (GSH), a powerful antioxidant and anti-carcinogen. It has no fat or cholesterol.

Asparagus is a powerful diuretic and has been used medicinally for that purpose since ancient times. It also contains sulphur compounds that cause a noticeable odor in the urine - but many (as many as 60%) are genetically unable to smell this odor at all. The sulphur compounds have no known adverse health effects, in fact, sulphur is often deficient in the average diet.

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