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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Finding Feral Asparagus

Updated: May 9

This is a post that I've struggled to write for a while. I think it's been floating around in my mind for over a year now. I've struggled to start it because there are so many other great resources for this topic! What could I provide that hasn't already been covered? 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. Nonetheless, I've finally made a cup of tea, sat down, uploaded photos, and started writing, so here it goes. Another feature of the lovely wild/feral asparagus.


A handful of chunky feral asparagus spears.
A handful of chunky feral asparagus spears.

Typically, this is when I would start describing the identifying features of the plant or mushroom. Still, I'm willing to bet that everyone reading this can positively ID asparagus. If you can't, head to the veggie section in your local grocery store and find the asparagus. Silliness aside, the wild/feral version is essentially the 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 various conditions and comes in various sizes, from match-stick skinny to an inch or wider! For instance, check out this trophy!


Me, Orion Aon, holding a two to three foot long asparagus spear.
The largest asparagus spear I've ever found.

Wild Versus Feral


Most people usually call this plant wild asparagus. It grows in the wild, after all! In truth, it is feral and not wild. It's also not native to North America. At some point during the colonization of America, this plant was brought over to be cultivated as food. At some other point on the asparagus timeline, it escaped and became naturalized outside 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, hundreds of plants were similarly imported by settlers. Though, most don't get the wild or feral tacked onto their name. 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 be another edible weed. Not feral or wild, just asparagus.


 

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Feral asparagus growing near some cattails and other water-loving plants.
Feral asparagus growing near some cattails and other water-loving plants.

Where to Find Feral 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, asparagus grows 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 spears in late April and continue into the summer. I have even found fresh spears of asparagus in mid July, though the earlier months are more fruitful! That gives you many options for places to start your search, so how can we narrow things down and find some feral asparagus?


You can take many approaches to locating asparagus, depending on the season. 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. The old stalks will lead you to new ones. This is probably the most difficult time to find asparagus until you know 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, as seen in the above photo. Notice the patches of stalks still upright on the left and the handful bent over on the right. The lighter-colored stalks are cattails. To my eyes, the dried stalks of asparagus are a bit more yellow than the weedy look-alikes. This will be more apparent in the fall, but we'll get to that soon. Up close, leaf scales appear along the dried stalk. These are the same scales found on fresh spears and can help you figure out if you're looking at an asparagus stalk. 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 towards the tips of the leaves.


The leaf scale on a dried stalk of asparagus.
The leaf scale on a dried stalk of asparagus.

When to Find Asparagus


A little later in the spring and summer, it gets much easier to locate patches of feral asparagus because some spears will inevitably 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 far 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 and you will, too!


Silhouetted asparagus plants with their feathery-looking branches.
Silhouetted asparagus plants with their feathery-looking branches.

I often find asparagus in July, but as the summer progresses, the plants will stop sending up new spears and focus on producing fruit to create new patches of asparagus. Late summer and fall are when the asparagus plants are the most obvious, and it 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, they create little green berry-like fruits that hang from the branches, which will turn red as they ripen. These hanging red fruits make the asparagus plants look like a skinny little Christmas tree! As a note, these fruits are 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 to turn feral!


In the fall and early winter, the plants take on their final form before turning into the 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 use this coloration and mark down many new spots to check in the spring!


Asparagus spears laying on top of a backpack with a knife.
I like using a small knife to harvest asparagus spears.

Foraging and Storing Asparagus


Once you've located some fresh asparagus spears, you'll want to collect them correctly. 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, grasp the spears and bend them until they snap. The breaking point should be where the spears become tough and fibrous, so this method leaves you with pan-ready asparagus! Some larger spears may be a little tough towards the bottom if you slice them at the base. You can use a peeler to remove the tough outer skin of the bottom third, or you can snap the tough parts off and save them for asparagus soup or 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 with a little water covering the cut bases. Stored this way, the spears will last for weeks! If I get a large haul of asparagus, I will often keep it stored like this, pull out whatever amount I want 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 omelets! Often, these omelets will also have morels, oysters, and other spring foragables, but they're wonderful with just the asparagus and a little cheese. I made myself one this morning before finishing this post. It had asparagus, salsify, and ricotta cheese! I served it with some homemade sourdough toast and nettle greens. Yum!


An omelet made with asparagus, served with sourdough bread and steam nettles.
Omelet made with feral asparagus. A side of sourdough and steamed nettles.

Foraging Calendar


To learn more about the best seasons to harvest feral asparagus and many other wild foods, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks! Joining is the best way to support all the work I put into my content and website to help you learn about foraging! Thank you for checking it out!


A screenshot of my Foraging Calendar.

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