2017-05-25 / From The Garden

The Vegetable of Kings

By Cynthia Gibson

The luscious green spears with purple tips have popped. Asparagus is here in full force.

Asparagus is of Greek origin. In ancient Greece, the vegetable was eaten raw or cooked during the summer, and then dried to be eaten during the winter months. King Louis XIV of France dined on asparagus, which was grown just for him in the royal gardens of Versailles.

Asparagus made its way to England by the 17th century and still was eaten mainly by the rich. Finally, the green spears arrived in local markets in the 18th century and could be enjoyed by all. By the 19th century, asparagus came to our shores as seed via ships from Europe.

White asparagus was a favorite of the French and Germans.

The largest asparagus festival is held in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany in May. Not only is there an Asparagus Queen, but menus in every restaurant are dedicated to the vegetable. To turn the asparagus white, soil is mounded around the growing stalks to block the sun. The result is a lovely white stalk with just a hint of lavender on the knobby tops. Due to the lack of sunlight, there is also a lack of sugar. So, expect white asparagus to have a slightly bitter taste. But the thicker the white stalk, the less bitterness.

Local supermarkets have become really ‘chichi’ and now carry white asparagus, particularly during the holidays, but this spring has also brought spears in green and white. At Sweet Berry Farm, they grow both green and purple asparagus.

Once a delicacy for the wealthy, asparagus is now a staple vegetable on many weight-loss diets as a natural diuretic.

Gardening Tip: Growing asparagus is a long process. Rather than start from seed (which is possible if you have years ahead of you), it is best to grow them from crowns. Be sure to buy three-year-old crowns; any younger require a longer wait for the final product. Crowns are now for sale for planting in a designated bed. Asparagus crowns look like tiny beige hockey pucks with legs growing from them, rather like an octopus. Place crowns in trenches one foot apart, then cover with soil. Next spring, one stalk will pop up, but it must be cut so the sugars build up in the roots to produce edible asparagus the following year. Later, asparagus that is too small to eat should be left to go to seed. The plant itself is lovely and throws out masses of soft fern-like leaves that grow to about three feet tall. Late in the season, there will be red berries on the stems of the ferns. These are the seed pods of asparagus.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport.

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