Wild asparagus starts appearing towards the end of winter and offers bountiful harvests through most of the spring. They are highly sought after, especially by those who enjoy long and healthy walks in rural settings. To harvest them, it’s crucial to be adept at recognizing the plant from which these shoots with their characteristic bitter taste emerge. Furthermore, to do so in harmony with nature, a few simple yet important precautions are necessary.
This article will delve into the various species of asparagus most commonly found in the wild in our territory. Additionally, we’ll get better acquainted with true wild asparagus, learn how to recognize it, and provide some helpful tips for harvesting.
Different Species of Asparagus
The word “asparagus” has Greek origins, aspháragos, which in turn derives from the Persian term asparag = sprout. This suggests the plant’s Eastern origin, likely dating back to ancient Mesopotamia. As per the latest classification Apg III, asparagus constitutes a distinct botanical family, known as Asparagaceae. This family encompasses over 300 species of asparagus, but only a few are found in our country.
Let’s explore the main ones:
- Wild or sharp, Asparagus acutifolius. This is the true wild asparagus, which will be the focus here. It’s the most widespread and appreciated wild species in our country.
- Common, Asparagus officinalis. This species represents cultivated asparagus, the kind you find in grocery stores. Common asparagus is often found in the wild. According to credible studies, it was harvested by the Romans from wild plants, eventually leading to the most suitable strains for cultivation.
- Bitter, Asparagus maritimus. This species is typical of coastal areas and is very similar to common asparagus. It is prevalent along the Adriatic coast but is generally considered a rare species.
- Wild, Asparagus tenuifolius. A rather rare species that mainly thrives in beech forests and is sometimes found near old olive groves.
- Marine, Asparagus aphyllus. This species exists in Lazio, near Torvajanica and Castelporziano, in Sicily, and Sardinia.
- Prickly, Asparagus stipularis. A rare species found in scrubland from 0 to 500 meters. Present only in Sicily, Sardinia, and Lampedusa.
- White, Asparagus albus. A highly prized species with typical woody and white stems. Grows in arid slopes, scrublands, and among cliffs, from 0 to 1000 meters. Common in Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.
- Di Pastor, Asparagus pastorianus. A very rare species found only in coastal areas of Sicily, near Selinunte.
Botanical Characteristics of Wild Asparagus
Let’s explore the botanical characteristics of true wild asparagus, to easily identify it when encountered. The wild asparagus plant is shrub-like, evergreen, and perennial. It has a root system consisting of fleshy roots, about 25 to 30 cm long, branching out from a slightly developed rhizome but equipped with numerous buds. The shoots, or the part of wild asparagus that we seek, emerge from these root buds. The emergence of shoots from the ground begins in early March (in Southern regions) and continues throughout the growing season. The shoots vary in color from light green to dark green, almost purplish. Initially tender and unbranched, this is the ideal time for harvesting and consumption. As they grow, they become tougher and form new plant branches. Overall, a wild asparagus plant can reach heights between 50 cm and 2 m. The leaves are scale-like and visible on the main stem and the shoots. There are also false leaves (or cladodes), actual modified branches that perform photosynthesis (a function not carried out by the leaves). These branches have needle-like structures, pointed tips, and are clustered together, hence the common name “prickly asparagus”. Another significant characteristic is that wild asparagus is a dioecious species. This means male and female flowers are borne by different plants. The flowers of wild asparagus are pale yellow and very delicate, approximately 5 mm in diameter, with an unpleasant odor. The flowering occurs in summer, between August and September. Moreover, the plant produces small spherical berries, green when immature, and darker when fully ripe. Each berry contains 1 to 3 seeds.
Wild asparagus is a very hardy species, found almost everywhere in Italy, with a higher concentration in the Center-South. It grows from sea level up to 1300 meters in altitude, except in areas with excessively harsh winters. It thrives in the Mediterranean scrub, holm oak woods, and deciduous forests. Generally, it prefers shade and is often found in old orchards and olive groves. Wild asparagus adapts to different types of soil. They have no problems in either acidic pH soils or alkaline ones. They avoid waterlogged soils and those too clayey, which crack in the summer, exposing the roots to the sun. Being a very hardy species, wild asparagus grows well in marginal soils (for example, rocky slopes), where few other plants manage to produce good yields. Another virtue is its ability to be a pioneer species in fire-affected terrains.
Tips for harvesting wild asparagus
Let’s now talk about harvesting wild asparagus, starting with a necessary premise. Just like for the collection of porcini mushrooms, Lactarius deliciosus etc, when entering the forest ecosystem, maximum attention must be paid to nature. Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Sometimes people don’t care about preserving the natural environment, but only focus on their daily collection. For this reason, in many Italian regions (such as Tuscany, Veneto, Sicily, Lazio), specific regulations have been issued that regulate the collection. Before venturing out to search for wild asparagus, therefore, find out about the presence of a regional forest protection regulation.
For the collection of asparagus, there are essentially two techniques. The first involves cutting it when it is still tender, about 20 cm from the tip. This can happen if the asparagus is long enough, detaching it in the non-woody part. By doing so, the remaining part of the stem spike emits new lateral shoots. Another technique for harvesting asparagus is by uprooting them from the ground. This way, the underground white part is also removed for about 5-15 cm. Great care must be taken not to damage the mother plant if you opt for this type of collection. An ancient popular belief holds that when the asparagus is uprooted from the earth, it will produce 10 new asparagus. This seems to be the best harvesting technique to keep the mother plant producing new shoots.
The properties of wild asparagus
Wild asparagus is characterized by its typical bitter taste, ideal for various recipes in the kitchen. Moreover, they are very rich in nutritious substances, mostly protective and stimulating. Specifically, 100 g of asparagus provides 25 mg of Vitamin C, equal to 1/3 of an adult’s daily requirement. They also provide 75% of the daily needs of folic acid, an essential vitamin for cell multiplication and protein synthesis. Wild asparagus is also an excellent source of carotenoids, which the body will then transform into Vitamin A. This vitamin has antioxidant properties, protecting the skin and mucous membranes.
They also contain Vitamin B2, necessary to convert food into energy. For these reasons, wild asparagus can be consumed to:
- Enhance blood fluidity
- Re-mineralize, with a good content of calcium, iron, and potassium
- Regulate a sluggish intestine
- Stimulate diuresis, thanks to asparagine, a nitrogenous substance typical of this vegetable
- Facilitate body detoxification.
Excessive consumption of wild asparagus (but also cultivated ones) can cause problems in some individuals. Consumption is not recommended for those suffering from kidney failure, nephritis, and gout. This is due to the significant content of nitrogen-rich substances. There should also be caution in use for people suffering from albuminuria, anuria, kidney stones, and cystitis.