In Search of the Wild Asparagus

Although it may not seem a likely topic for a nature blog, I would like to briefly focus your autumnal attentions to asparagus. There is a wild side to this familiar domestic crop beloved by all but small children, dogs, and people who don’t belove it.  Asparagus often goes on the lamb. They jump the fences, and flee the confines of organized agriculture, to become feral residents of our weedy roadsides.

There, among the lush green of spring and summer, the wild asparagii blend in and go undetected by those who would decapitate them. Safe from prosecution they grow beyond harvest size and branch out into leafy mini-shrubs (the vegetative equivalent to growing a scruffy beard). They flower, fruit, and die back just like their wild neighbors. On extremely still nights, the scream of the wild asparagus can be heard – beckoning back to their ancestral haunts in Europe, Africa, and Asia. In autumn, however, this anonymous and savage way of life becomes threatened.

The tall asparagus clusters turn a bright orangish yellow in the fall – marking their locations against the background as clearly as if they were set on fire. They can be spotted by even the most disinterested of passersby (see beginning photo and above). Now is the time, my friends, to mark their presence because this standout color phase continues well into November. You can return to their spot next summer and harvest an unclaimed crop of succulent asparagus shoots. There will be a price for doing so, but that explanation can wait a moment.

Most of us are familiar with the appearance of cultivated asparagus, but many don’t recognize it in the feral state – looking more like yellow tumbleweeds than shoot crops. They become shrubby plants adorned with soft needle-like leaves and red berries. The fruits are poisonous for us, but highly edible for wildlife, which explains how they flee their garden boundaries in the first place (as seeds within bird poo, if you must know).

Even if you don’t end up marking these wild spots, you can still claim the right to shout out, as you are driving by, “Hey look, there’s another patch of wild asparagus” (if there are no passengers in the car, then you can yell this statement even louder). Should you choose to imbibe in the fresh wild shoots next season, the yellow color of the autumn version of the plant can serve to remind you that asparagus has an interesting chemical property.

Asparagus – both wild and tame – makes your urine smell funny. Oddly enough, not everyone can detect this unusual smell because of genetic issues, but all asparagus eaters are stinky pee-ers! As an early 18th century Englishman once put it: “asparagus causes a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine as everybody knows.” Now dear reader you know and can now add this fact, as well as those mentioned previously in this blog, to your list of useless trivia.

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