Updated: May 3, 2020
This is a post that I've struggled to write for a while... I think it's been floating around in the back of my mind for over a year now. I've struggled to start it because there are so many other great resources for this topic out there! What could I provide that hasn't already been covered? There are plenty of blogs and articles detailing these familiar spring vegetables, and even a famous book named after the topic! Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons (this is just a great general foraging book and not entirely about asparagus by the way). Nonetheless, I've finally made myself a cup of tea, sat down, uploaded photos, and started writing, so here it goes... Another feature of the lovely 'wild' asparagus.
Typically this is when I would start describing the identifying features of the plant or mushroom in question, but I'm willing to bet that everyone reading this can positively ID asparagus. If you can't, then while you're at the store smelling oyster mushrooms head over to the veggie section and find the asparagus! Silliness aside, the wild/feral version of this grocery store staple is essentially the exact same, the only difference being a larger variety in sizes. The store bought stuff is grown in very controlled settings and thus are all very similar in size. The wild/feral version grows in a variety of conditions and comes in a variety of sizes, from match-stick skinny to an inch or more wide! For instance, check out this trophy! I'm 6'2" for reference.
I guess we should just talk about this wild/feral thing now...
Most people, including myself, usually call this plant "wild asparagus", it grows in the "wild" after all! In truth though, it is actually feral and not wild. It's also not native to North America. At some point during American settlement this plant, and many others, were brought over to be cultivated as food or medicine, and at some other point on the asparagus timeline it escaped and became naturalized outside of the cultivation settings. Now, does it matter if you call it wild or feral? No, not really... but feral asparagus is technically more correct and it's fun to say!
As a related note, there are hundreds of plants that were similarly imported by settlers. Most of them don't get the wild or feral tacked onto their name though. This is because those plants aren't commonly cultivated as food or medicine anymore. If we didn't grow asparagus as a commercial crop it would just be another edible weed; not feral or wild, just asparagus.
Asparagus likes to grow in a handful of different habitats, but it isn't too picky as long as it can get some occasional moisture and sun! In Colorado I find asparagus growing in flood plains, along rivers and streams, near ponds and lakes, in pastures, along the edges of canals and ditches, and most commonly under the fence rows bordering county roads. Most of the areas where I have success are in the Front Range and eastern Colorado, however I have heard that it can grow at higher elevations in lesser quantities as well. It also can be found in the lower elevations of western Colorado! They will start sending up spears in late April and continue to do so into the summer. I have often found fresh spears of asparagus in mid July! That gives you a lot of options for places to start your search, so how can we narrow things down and actually find some feral asparagus!?
There are many approaches you can take to locating asparagus depending on the season, but since we're in spring right now I'll start there! Early in the asparagus season you'll have to hone in on the stalks from last year's mature plants. Asparagus is a perennial with a vast root system from which the spears sprout, so the old stalks will lead you to new ones. This is probably the most difficult time to reliably find asparagus until you know where to look and what to look for. The dried stalks share some similarities to several other weedy plants so you'll just have to get used to checking on the wrong plants until you learn asparagus well.
There are a few features to look out for that may help narrow things down though. The mature asparagus stalks are often found in patches instead of singles, this can be seen in the above photo - notice the patches of stalks that are still upright on the left, and the handful that have bent over on the right, the lighter colored stalks are cattails. Next, to my eyes, the dried stalks of asparagus are a bit more yellow in color than the weedy look-a-likes. This is definitely more apparent in the fall, but we'll get to that in a minute! Up close you'll noticed leaf scales occasionally appearing along the dried stalk, these are the same scales that can be found on fresh spears and can really help you figure out if you're looking at an asparagus stalk or . Finally, if they haven't broken off, the dried stalks almost have a fractal branching pattern. It seems like each subsequent branch/leaflet comes off at roughly a 45 degree angle and they get smaller as you get towards the tips of the leaves.
A little later on in the spring and summer it gets much easier to locate patches of feral asparagus because some spears will inevitably escape the clutches of man and beast and reach maturity. When mature, asparagus looks like an entirely different plant. All those dried fractal-like branches will be beautifully green and feathery looking. They usually stand well above the grass and can be spotted from a good distance away. Looking below these feathery plants will often lead you to fresh new spears waiting to be collected. After you develop a mental search image for the mature plants you will start spotting them in unexpected places! I regularly see these while driving down the highway, at highway speeds, and you will too!
I only have this mediocre underexposed photo of the mature plants. I will update this post with a better photo in a few weeks, but at least it gives you a good idea of the silhouette you're looking for...
As mentioned above, I often find asparagus in July, but as the summer progresses the plants will stop sending up new spears and start focusing on producing fruit to create new patches of asparagus out there in the world. Late summer and fall is when the asparagus plants are the most obvious, and is your opportunity to start scouting for new patches to revisit the following spring.
Towards the end of summer the asparagus plants will produce fruits! First, creating little green berry-like seed pods that hang from the branches, which, as they ripen, will turn red. These hanging red fruits make the asparagus plants look sort of like Dr. Seuss Christmas trees! As a note, these fruits are actually considered mildly toxic to humans so please don't eat them. Birds love them though and are probably the main mode of escape that allowed the asparagus turn feral!
In the fall and early winter the plants take on their final form before turning into the coveted dried stalks of the spring! They become a wonderfully bright golden color and stand out like glowing beacons compared to the surrounding vegetation. If you know what to look for you can really take advantage of this coloration and mark down many new spots to check in the spring!
I don't have any pictures of these because I'm apparently too busy mushroom hunting in the summer and fall to take any... Here are Google links for the berries and golden plants for you to look at until I can update the post with photos of my own!
Once you've successfully located some fresh asparagus spears you'll want to collect them the right way! No pulling please! My preferred method is to use a knife to slice the spears off near their base, but you could also use scissors or just your hands. If you're going after the asparagus without any tools simply grasp the spears and bend them until they snap. The breaking point should be right around where the spears start to become tough and fibrous, so this method leaves you with pan-ready asparagus! If you slice them at the base some of the larger spears may be a little tough towards the bottom. You can use a peeler to removed the tough outer skin of the bottom third, or just snap the tough parts off and compost them.
If you aren't going to cook your bounty right away they're best stored in the refrigerator standing in a small container of water. Stored this way the spears will last for weeks! If I get a large haul of asparagus I will often keep them store like this and just pull out whatever amount I wanted to cook and occasionally change the water if it becomes funky.
One of my favorite ways to use asparagus is to chop it up as a filling for omelettes! Often these omelettes will also have morels or oysters and other spring greens in them, but they're wonderful with just the asparagus and a little bit of cheese! I made myself one this morning before finishing this post. It had asparagus, salsify (which I cover in my recent post about spring greens), and ricotta cheese! I served it with some homemade sourdough toast, and nettle greens. Yum!
I hope you all have success while you're out stalking the feral asparagus!