Even though the US is currently the world’s largest importer of it (almost 200,000 tons per year) and the 7th largest commercial producer, asparagus only became widely available in the United States in the mid-1850s. Prior to this, most Americans who hadn’t been to Europe had probably never even heard of a vegetable that had been enjoyed in dozens of other countries for centuries.
Botanically classified as Asparagaceae asparagoideae asparagus officinalis, the asparagus is a flowering perennial plant that grows in temperate climates throughout the world. The vegetable that we commonly refer to as asparagus are the young shoots of the plant (often called ‘spears’), normally harvested in the early spring; shoots that are left un-harvested too long will start to flower and become woody and, eventually, inedible. The leaves of the asparagus plant are not normally consumed, while the berries the plant produces are poisonous – and can be fatal – to humans.
Although no one is completely certain where it originated, asparagus was consumed by the Ancient Egyptians as far back as 3,000 BC and appears in the historical records of the Middle East and parts of what is now Spain a few centuries later. Along with being very fond of asparagus as a vegetable, both Ancient Greek and Roman physicians used it for medicinal purposes: as a diuretic; to help treat chronic fatigue, diarrhea, jaundice and kidney problems; and as an aphrodisiac. The plant quickly spread to Asia, and by the mid-16th century was being cultivated throughout Western Europe. Why it wasn’t widely introduced to the New World until the early to mid-19th century is something of a mystery.
Today, about 8.5 million tons of asparagus are commercially cultivated throughout the world each year, with China producing about seven times the amount – at just over 7 million tons annually – as the rest of the world combined. Peru, Germany, Mexico, Thailand, Spain, Italy, and the United States (at about 38,000 tons annually) are the world’s other leading commercial producers.
Until humans decided to interfere, all asparagus strains produced both male and female plants, with the males being the most prolific producers of the best quality shoots. In the last few decades, however, researchers have developed strains of all male asparagus plants and these are the most widely commercially cultivated today, due to their increased yield per plant.
Asparagus plants thrive in temperate climates, and most types can tolerate quite cold winters. They are very popular with home gardeners throughout the United States and Europe due, in part, to their being very long-lived perennial plants. Generally speaking, it will take 3 to 4 years before an asparagus plant will start producing edible shoots, and it is not uncommon for some plants to continue to produce shoots for 20 to 30 years with proper care.
Apart from being quite delicious, asparagus is one of the healthiest vegetables you can eat. They are high in dietary fiber as well as vitamins A, most B vitamins, C, E, and K, as well as iron, phosphorous, zinc and calcium. Asparagus also contains a relatively high concentration of certain chemicals (commonly referred to as asparagusic acids) that give the urine of some people who eat it a very strong odor. While the smell they cause can be quite unpleasant, the chemicals themselves are harmless to humans.
Most types of asparagus can be eaten raw, cooked in a variety of ways, and will also stand up to canning (most often in glass jars) and pickling well; when properly stored, pickled asparagus shoots can last for many years.
So what are the common types of asparagus available today?
Green is the most widely cultivated type of asparagus both commercially and by home growers throughout the world, and what you are most likely to find at your local grocery store or farmers’ market. It is quite likely that the green asparagus most commonly found in the market today looks and tastes a great deal like what the Ancient Romans enjoyed at their tables over 3,000 years ago.
Generally speaking, most green asparagus will be between 7 and 9 inches long. Different cultivars (some of which are discussed below) can be anything from pencil thin to over an inch in diameter at their thickest point, but the most common varieties will usually be around half an inch thick. The stalks will usually be a deep green, often with some purple shading as they taper upward to the tips, which will usually look like un-blossomed flowers. Most green asparagus will have a firm, fibrous, slightly woody texture at the end of the stalk and will become more tender as it reaches the tip. The flavor will normally be earthy and a bit nutty, with some hints of sweetness.
While green asparagus can be eaten raw and is sometimes shaved and used in certain types of salads and crudités, it is more commonly cooked, steamed, fried, sautéed or boiled and served as a side dish, often with a variety of sauces. It is often paired with mushrooms and melted cheeses and served with beef or lamb entrees, and in recent years has become an increasingly popular component of many vegetarian and vegan dishes. Most cultivars will last between seven to ten days if properly wrapped and refrigerated, and will stand up to both canning and pickling well.
Purple asparagus was developed by farmers in the coastal Albenga region of Northern Italy and first marketed to the world under the name Violetto d’Albenga. Originally developed from open-pollinated female green asparagus seeds, it is similar in size and shape to its green relatives. The purple color is the result of very high levels of anthocyanins, an antioxidant flavonoid believed by some to help prevent cancer and intestinal inflammation.
Once almost exclusively grown in Northern Italy, purple asparagus is commercially cultivated today throughout Italy and other parts of Western Europe, as well as the United Kingdom, New Zeeland, and the United States – particularly California and Michigan. Although it is extremely popular in some parts of the world, it is still something of a specialty vegetable in the United States. Purple asparagus will generally have a less fibrous texture and a quite sweet flavor (most varieties have up to 20 percent more natural sugar content than other asparagus types) with hints of almonds, barley, and artichoke when cooked. The rich purple/violet color of the skin will fade when the spear is cooked, and this coloration is only skin deep; the flesh will be a very light, almost translucent green.
Due in large part to its sweet taste and tender texture, purple asparagus is often eaten raw, either as part of a salad or as a component of crudités. In cooked applications, it is usually steamed or grilled / sautéed for a relatively short time over high heat (which helps to preserve its natural purple color) and served alone or accompanied by lemon, salt, and olive oil as a side dish. It pairs well with meat and some fish dishes. Purple asparagus should usually be used within a week and does not stand up to pickling and canning quite as well as the green and white varieties.
Although it has been very popular throughout Europe for decades (so popular, in fact, that there are actually a number of festivals held in Germany – where it is called spargel – to celebrate its arrival to the markets in late May and early June) fresh white asparagus remains something of a rarity in the New World, although it is widely available in canned and pickled forms. It is usually only found fresh at farmers’ markets on the West Coast and in some parts of the Midwest, and then only for a few weeks in May and early June. While it is grown on a small scale by some farmers in the United States and Canada as a specialty item, it is not widely commercially cultivated outside of Western Europe and some parts of Asia.
Put simply, white asparagus is actually pretty much any type of green asparagus that has been grown in a special way. During its growth cycle, the asparagus shoots are either covered with dirt or grown inside of some sort of porous covering which does not allow sunlight to reach the spears. The lack of sunlight keeps the spears from producing chlorophyll, which in turn keeps them from turning green. At harvest, the plants must be uncovered and picked by hand, making it a quite labor and cost intensive vegetable to produce, and in large part accounting for its relative rarity and high cost.
Fresh white asparagus will usually be slightly shorter than its green relatives, although otherwise they will be shaped the same. The skin tends to be thick, woody, and quite bitter and will normally need to be peeled prior to use. The flavor is somewhat sweeter than green asparagus, as well as slightly milder. It is often shaved for use in salads, or lightly blanched and served as an appetizer or side dish with a variety of sauces. While it will stand up to both pickling and canning well, it is not a particularly long-lasting vegetable, and will normally need to be used fresh within 3 or 4 days.
The ‘Jersey Series’ is the collective name for a group of all male hybrid green asparagus cultivars that have been developed (and are still being developed) at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station by scientists from the Rutgers University School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. Since the developmental research began in the late 1940s, over a dozen cultivars in the Jersey Series have been released, many of which have become among the most popular types of asparagus with both commercial and home growers alike due to their higher yield, consistency of size, and increased resistance to diseases common to asparagus plants including fusarium, and crown / rust rot. When you purchase fresh green asparagus at your local market, there is a good chance that you are getting a cultivar of – or closely related to – the Jersey Series.
The most popular members of the Jersey Series include:
The Jersey Knight is a particularly high yielding variety that produces a slightly larger than average asparagus spear which will usually grow to 8 or 9 inches in length, and be a bit over half an inch in diameter. They will normally have a bright green color throughout the stalk, deep purple shading at the tip, a firm texture and a standard asparagus flavor. Specifically bred to be tolerant of both hot and cold temperatures, the Jersey Knight will grow in most parts of the United States and Canada.
The Jersey Giant, despite what the name indicates, does not produce a significantly larger spear than most other varieties of asparagus. Probably the most popular single strain of asparagus with both home and commercial asparagus growers today, the Jersey Giant was specifically developed to be more tolerant of cold winter climates and will thrive in areas that see frost as late as mid-April. While it will grow in warmer climates, extended periods of hot weather will cause the stalks to wilt; in the deep Southern United States, many growers will harvest the spears early, when they are between 5 and 6 inches long.
Quite popular with home growers because of its longevity (this variety will often produce edible spears for 25 to 30 years), the Jersey King does best in warmer climates as it does not tolerate late frosts particularly well. This is a high yielding plant that doesn’t require a great deal of maintenance. Generally, the spears will be slightly thicker than the other Jersey Series varieties, and are at their most tender and flavorful when they are harvested at about 7 inches. The Jersey King tends to produces very sweet, succulent spears and is particularly well suited to canning and pickling.
For many years the Mary Washington was the ‘standard’ asparagus in the United States, before being replaced by most commercial growers with the Jersey Series in the late 1950s. Still very popular with small farmers and home growers today, the Mary Washington is an heirloom variety that was developed around 1920 specifically to resist ‘asparagus rust’ disease which, at that time, destroyed about 1 out of every 3 asparagus plants. A fairly hardy and vigorous plant, the Mary Washington will grow in most parts of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. The spears are usually fairly uniform in size, shape, and coloration and are most often harvested when they are about 7 to 8 inches; they have deep green stalks and tips with a pale purple coloration. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet, and this variety stands up to canning, pickling and freezing well. Some gardening sites advise home growers looking to try their hands at producing white asparagus (discussed above) to use the Mary Washington plant.
A hybrid of the original Violetto d’Albenga purple asparagus from Northern Italy, the Purple Passion is probably the most widely grown purple asparagus variety in the United States and Canada. Commercially cultivated on a limited basis in the US states of California and Michigan as well as by small farmers and gardeners across the country, the Purple Passion is a relatively sturdy plant that tolerates cold better than many other purple varieties and produces a fairly large yield of spears. Usually a deep reddish purple color, the spears are normally harvested when they are between 5 and 6 inches long; they will rapidly begin to turn ‘woody’ and lose their sweetness if allowed to get much larger. Much sweeter than green asparagus varieties, the spears will usually keep fresh for 7 to 10 days after harvesting. They can be canned or pickled, but do not do as well with freezing as many green varieties.
The Viking KB3 is one of the most recent cultivars of green asparagus to gain popularity – particularly with smaller commercial growers and home gardeners. Developed in Ontario, Canada and a direct, open-pollinated cultivar of the Mary Washington, the Viking KB3 was designed to thrive in colder climates and produces a particularly high yield of uniform spears that will normally be harvested at 8 to 10 inches. Normally green with pale purple tips, the Viking KB3 has a standard asparagus flavor and is appropriate for all general uses. Along with providing a high yield per plant, this strain of asparagus is also particularly long-lasting, and will often remain good for up to two weeks if stored properly.
Wild asparagus is, as the name indicates, asparagus that grows wild as opposed to being cultivated. It grows on every continent with the exception of Antarctica (although it is most commonly found in Western Europe, Africa, and North America), and will usually be found growing in coastal areas or near where asparagus is commercially cultivated. Wild asparagus can be different shades of green or purple or can contain both colors. Generally, wild asparagus will be much thinner than cultivated varieties and can be quite difficult to spot as it will usually blend in with tall grass and other vegetation. Genetically the same as cultivated varieties, wild asparagus can be used in the same ways as other types and will usually have a very earthy, slightly nutty flavor. Almost never available in markets, if you want to enjoy wild asparagus, the odds are that you are going to have to go out and find it yourself.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.