A thing of beauty

My dad brought me home this wild asparagus plant from the coulees.  It has bolted, gone to seed and fallen over.  The roots of plant are still intact back in the coulees, ready to sprout next spring.  So he couldn’t pass this beautiful and unusual specimen up!  We can’t get over the size of the stalk on it- easily 3 inches- I would have loved to have seen this when it was still green!  In my experience, this is definitely not the norm when it comes to wild asparagus- this is some kind of super plant!  For scale, note the dog in the picture is a smallish yorkie cross.

Also, could wild asparagus be the source of Lethbridge tumbleweeds?

Stalking the Wild Asparagus: Lethbridge Style

It’s asparagus season here in southern Alberta.

Last year, I attempted to stalk the wild asparagus but had no success.  I had heard for years that Lethbridge has wild asparagus growing in the coulees and surrounding farmland ditches.  But never once, had I spotted this Lethbian asparagus- until it was too late.  Walking the dog in the coulees one day, there it was: probably two feet high.  A striking, stubborn, bamboo-like spear sticking out of the prairie grass.  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  The friends I was walking with didn’t believe me that it was, in fact, real, wild asparagus.  Everyone’s first instinct was to “take it!”  But I couldn’t- it was just too beautiful and likely too far gone and woody to eat.  Sure enough, we came back the next day and it had been lopped off.  I was sort of sad.  But it sparked an interest in me to learn when and how to pick wild asparagus.

So over the rest of spring and summer of 2010, I tried to learn more about wild asparagus.  I asked around and there were a few people who agreed that yes, it did grow in the coulees, “somewhere”, or that they’d heard it “grows on slopes and ditches”.  I even went searching the slopes and ditches of the coulees- but little did I know, by that time, it was too late.

Wild asparagus seems to have a really short window of perfection- and then it goes to seed.   As we continued our walks in the coulees over last summer, I started to notice these large, green, spindly fern-like plants.  As autumn arrived, they turned brilliant yellow-orange.  Some even had round, red seeds and sort of looked like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree with tiny little red bulbs.  Doing some looking around on the net, I was pretty sure these were mature asparagus plants.  You could spot them from a far ways away- so I started to keep a mental record of where I saw them.

As things started to turn green this spring, it quickly came to mind that stalking and locating the wild asparagus was of utmost priority.  We hadn’t had rain for a few weeks and so I knew that once the rain came, it was time.  So about a week ago, we went to scout our hopeful asparagus harvest spots in preparation for the rain we knew would come just in time for May long weekend (because honestly, when has there been a sunny May-long weekend around here?!) Last year’s plants were still intact- now straw colored and rather tumbleweed-like.  We spotted a few little asparagi popping their heads out of the ground… my suspicions confirmed!  But the little ones weren’t yet tall enough to be harvested.

After the recent rain storm, we trekked on down to the coulees.  Sure enough, our efforts were rewarded.  Though our patches didn’t yield a lot, we were inspired to seek out other patches.  I don’t find that you come upon a clump or large amount of asparagus at once.  We found sporadic plant patches scattered along both the slopes and ditches of the coulees.  We tasted a raw spear, and my.  Nothing like a store-bought asparagus.  Sweet, and a tad starchy.  They currently rest in the refrigerator, waiting for the monumental feast (well, not really- we didn’t get that many).  I will probably just lightly boil or steam them and add butter, lemon and parmesan.  It doesn’t get any simpler or better than that.

If you are inspired to stalk the wild asparagus I have a few tips-

  • Tread lightly and don’t overpick.  Don’t take everything you find.  After all, if you take it all, how will it grow back next year?
  • Learn to identify mature plants and remember where they are for next year (or this year, if you go now!)
  • Be careful if you harvest near roadways and ditches– pesticides, cars and sharp objects may all be present.  None of these go that great with asparagus.
  • If in doubt- don’t eat it– though I am pretty certain that most people would know asparagus when they see it (it looks almost the same as store bought), if there is any doubt at all, please don’t eat it!

It truly is exciting to source food this close to home.  Growing a garden is one of the joys of life, but learning about nature’s garden is another one.  Our coulees are so full of beautiful plants- flowers, berries, greens… watch for a post later this season on saskatoons.  For now, I’m trying to find out just how long this wild asparagus harvest will last.  I’ll be out on another expedition this weekend for sure.

Have you ever stalked the wild asparagus?  What’s your favorite way to cook (wild or domesticated) asparagus?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

***ps: Stalking the Wild Asparagus is the name of a book by Euell Gibbons; “one of the few people in this country to devote a considerable part of his life to the adventure of “living off the land.” He sought out wild plants all over North America and made them into delicious dishes.”  While googling the book, I also found this great article out of Mother Earth News magazine