What is asparagus?
Basically, we’re eating the young shoots of a plant that’s probably native to the Mediterranean, though that’s hard to pin down.
Five thousand-year-old asparagus was discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs.
The ancient Greeks foraged for it in wet marshy areas; and it was so popular with the Romans, that Emperor Augustus coined the phrase
“faster than asparagus is cooked”, which meant, well, really fast!
Now, while it doesn’t take long to cook asparagus, it does take a little longer to grow…
Only about five years.
That’s how long it takes to go from seed to a fully yielding plant.
Farmers can get spears at year two, but if they want healthy long living plants, they don’t pick those.
At years three and four, farmers will start to harvest, but the plant won’t deliver a full season’s worth of asparagus.
See, farming asparagus is playing the long game
Asparagus is a perennial – that means they’re not pulled out at the end of the harvest season, like cucumbers or tomatoes, most of our common vegetables.
Here at Sheppard farms, they’ll keep a field for up to 20 years.
To get a jump on everything, farmers don’t plant seeds, they plant crowns.
That’s the name for root clusters that have been grown from seed by breeders.
Breeders get seeds from the fruits of the asparagus plant. That’s right – asparagus grows fruits, and they’re actually poisonous to humans!
The fruits grow once the female flowers are pollinated.
This meager yield is one reason that asparagus is such a delicacy.
It also has an extremely short harvest window, just eight weeks in the spring.
A mature plant will grow no more than 16 spears each season.
I know that doesn’t sound like much, but consider this: Shepherd farms harvests over 10,000 plants per acre – with 400 acres, that’s a lot to pick in a short period of time.
And to top it off, asparagus grows really fast – 6 inches in a day, or more! if it grows too tall, it starts to get tough and woody.
So picking asparagus is truly a race against time.
So this side is sharp, but this side is not sharp.
And they use this like a knife, to basically machete the ends off.
All right, you show me how to do that first. I’m a little bit scared.
At the end of the harvest season, the plants are allowed to fern out.
Branching out at the spear tips and growing wispy fronds.
All of this growth will be mowed down before next year’s harvest begins
From the field, the asparagus heads straight to the packing plant where it’s cleaned, cooled and sorted into one-pound bundles of about twenty spears.
In the U.S, green asparagus is the most popular, but there are purple varieties too, which are actually sweeter than green.
The purple ones do turn green though, when they’re cooked.
In much of Europe, the most prized asparagus is white, which is really just green asparagus that’s grown in the dark…
The technique is called blanching.
Dirt is mounded over the roots, so high that spears never see the sun, which means they never photosynthesize, and never build up the green pigment called chlorophyll.
I’ve never eaten fresh white asparagus, but I’m told it has a more delicate, less earthy taste than green.
I tried in the field today, you know, a spear of just freshly…
Asparagus is one of the most nutrition packed vegetables.
It’s got vitamin A, B6, C, E, Folate, Calcium. The list goes on.
It also leaves behind another gift:
See, asparagus contains the unique chemical:
Our bodies break that down into various sulfur compounds and it’s the sulfur that gives urine its unmistakable Asparagus stink
There is a weird twist to this whole phenomenon, and you can discover that by watching this…
Whatever minor consequences we may endure, that’s never stopped us from enjoying this springtime star.
It’s been on the menu for over 5,000 years
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