I grew up a tom-boy, with a dad who was well versed in what to eat (and what not to eat!) from the woods, the yard, and even the roadsides. Eating berries from the hillside and mushrooms from deep in the woods is one of the great pleasures in life!
I suppose though, if you didn’t grow up with wild edibles, and nobody has ever taken you foraging with them, chances are that you haven’t ever really tried it. But you should!
Foraging is nature’s treasure hunt. A scavenger hunt for adults.
Asparagus is the perfect gateway food into foraging. It’s all over the place, and you won’t mistake it for something poisonous. You don’t have to hike miles into the woods or climb mountains to find it.
And come on- it’s free food!
Now, I consider myself somewhat of an asparagus-hunter extraordinaire…
Here is how Karl and I find wild asparagus and harvest it:
How to Find Asparagus
Plan Ahead. Like, waaaay ahead.
The real secret to finding asparagus is to hunt for it in the fall time. When the air turns crisp and the leaves start to change color, the asparagus will really reveal itself to the universe. You will see the tell tale feathery yellow plants, sticking out like a city boy at the farm store. And once you know where the plants are, you’ll know exactly where to look for the spears in spring.
And actually, you can easily spot them in the middle of summer as well. When the plant “goes to seed,” the asparagus sends up a bushy, green, ferny stalk about 2-4ft. There are often a few in a cluster and they are easy to spot (that is, if you are looking).
But, even if you haven’t had the opportunity to scout an area before spring, there is still plenty of hope!
Know When to Look
In Wisconsin, I judge timing a few different ways. We almost always find asparagus on the path to our favorite (secret!) fishing hole. When the weekend of the fishing opener rolls around, I know it’s asparagus-time.
Another reliable indicator is the lilacs. As soon as the lilacs start to open their buds, I know I will find asparagus.
If you aren’t sure when to start foraging for asparagus (or other wild edibles) in your area, I bet you can find a great forum or Facebook group dedicated to finding wild edibles in your zone. The people in those groups will post when they start to find the first goodies popping up- it is a great help if you are a novice!
Know Where and How to Look
Asparagus loves light. You really won’t find it in the woods, or anywhere that is shaded from the mid-day sun. We almost always find it in the road ditches and on the edge of farm fields. That narrows down your search area considerably.
Instead of looking for the green spears of asparagus themselves, I look for two other things:
1. Dead stalks from last year, laying down on the ground. Sometimes they are almost as thick as corn stalks. And amongst a background of green weeds and green everything, their beige color is often easier to spot than an actual spear of asparagus. If you are tromping through a field or road ditch, this is one thing to program your brain to spot. And when you’re tromping through the weeds, don’t forget to protect yourself from ticks and Lyme disease.
2. Premature asparagus. Asparagus comes up over a few week period in our area, with stalks sprouting and emerging at different times and at different rates. This is very much to our advantage. Often there will be one or two (usually thinner) over-excited spears that come up first and then go to seed before a lot of the other stalks in the vicinity even come up. This is a great giveaway, because these are much easier to see! In fact, I can usually spot these from a moving car.
And once you’ve spotted one plant, look closely because there is bound to be more. We often find multiple plants within a 10-20ft radius, and even some straglers a little farther out.
I’ve Found Asparagus, Now What?
Well, harvest it!
A knife is the best tool for the job, and you should try to cut it as close to the ground as you can. Just snapping the stalk off will also work if you don’t have a knife on you.
Once I’ve harvested one stalk, I pay special attention to where the dead stalks are connected to the ground. I have a hard time spotting the spears by themselves amongst the grass and weeds, unless I look specifically at the dead plant from last year. There is often more than one spear coming up from where the old dead growth is.
Wondering which stalks to leave and which to take?
This isn’t really a simple answer.
Ideally you should leave some of the stalks behind, so that they can grow and use photosynthesis to create energy for the roots so that the plant will remain viable for the following year.
If it is early in the season, I don’t leave any stalks behind. There will be plenty more that come up that I will miss and eventually they will grow out.
If there is a stalk that is really tall and just starting to develop buds, I will leave that one for the plant and take all the rest. When they get tall and bud out, they also become a little more fibrous. This is a good sacrificial asparagus stalk to leave.
If there are already a couple spears that have turned to fern, great- those will be the ones the plant gets to keep and I will harvest all the rest over the season.
If the wild asparagus patch is very remote, in an area that I don’t suspect anyone else will visit, and I don’t plan on coming back to it, I will harvest all the spears. The plant will send up plenty more that will have a chance to grow out.
But what about the little shorties?!
Inevitably I always find a short spear (2″-6″) that needs another day or two to reach its full potential. It’s a shame to take it young, but also a shame to leave it.
This is what I call an asparagus conundrum.
If I can come back to this patch within two days, I will often leave the spear. If I know I won’t be back to the patch, and if the spear is over 4″ or so, I think it is worth harvesting. Little asparagus is better than no asparagus.
And what about the tall, monstrous asparagus?
I’ll take that too! The top half of the “spear” is still tender and quite edible. As long as it is not a “fern” and it is just a tall asparagus with little shoots coming off of it and buds forming, we think they are just great. (These are the ones I was talking about leaving for the plant, but if they are all like this, definitely take some).
Not only should you visit this patch every few days over the season, in order to collect the new spears that have come up (asparagus can grow really, really fast by the way), but you should plan on visiting this patch for years to come.
On my parent’s property there are four HUGE beautiful stalks of asparagus that come up every year. And my dad remembers harvesting them ever since he was a kid. That is at least a 50-year-old asparagus plant!
What NOT To Do When Hunting Asparagus
Asparagus season = tick season. Tuck those pants into your socks!
Forget a collection vessel
A plastic grocery bag works wonderfully.
Side of the road, great. Farmer’s field, not so much. Unless you have permission, of course.
Fat asparagus and skinny asparagus are equally tender. Just because they are larger, doesn’t mean they will be tough. In fact, I think prefer the thicker spears! The girth of the spear comes from genetics and plant age. Toughness comes from the age of the spear that season, so taller = tougher.
You may not find any asparagus the first, or even the second time you go out. Don’t give up- you’re bound to find some soon! Think of it as a time investment, because once you find a patch you can harvest from it your whole life.
And when you find your first young, tender stalk of wild asparagus- make sure you sample it right there in the field!
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