The spring green 

Sparagrass rules for a hundred good reasons

If one vegetable personifies spring, it’s asparagus. Those little bundles of beautiful green spears with their plaited tips resembling finely woven basketry or tiny chain mail say hello, aren’t you glad you made it through another winter?

Asparagus has no leaves per se, and that’s what creates those distinctive textured ends. They’re formed by asparagus’s peculiar branches – called phylloclades – that carry out photosynthesis and cluster near the growing tip of the immature stem. For that’s what you’re eating – a stem of a plant that’s a member of the lily family, and plants in the lily family are relatives of grasses.

Perhaps its subconscious echo of lilies and grasses are two more reasons why we associate asparagus so closely with spring, along with the fact that it’s one of the earliest crops to greet you, that is, if you’re successful at cultivating it, as my granddad was.

Even in the harsh climate in Edmonton, granddad delivered asparagus. Running through his garden in late summer and getting tickled by the fine feathery plumes, we kids had no idea this was the same plant that delivered those tasty spears in spring that made our pee stink. This peculiarity we weren’t the first to notice.

Harold McGee in his fine book On Food and Cooking cites the Treatise of All Sorts of Foods (circa 1700) written by the Frenchman Louis Lemery: "Sparagrass (I think that’s a much more appropriate name) eaten to Excess sharpen the Humours and heat a little; and therefore Persons of a bilious constitution ought to use them moderately: They cause a filthy (!) and disagreeable smell in the Urine, as every Body knows."

According to McGee, for a while there – about the mid-1950s, when we were running through granddad’s garden, to the 1980s – scientific theory had it that if you excreted the odorous methyl mercaptan after eating asparagus it was because you had a particular gene that rendered you a "stinker" so to speak.

Now scientists agree that everyone excretes methyl mercaptan after eating asparagus, it’s the ability to detect it that varies amongst us. Likely it’s a sulfur-containing amino acid, methionine, in the "sparagrass" that’s the culprit. But that certainly hasn’t put people off.

About 300 varieties of asparagus are native from Siberia to southern Africa. A couple of African species are grown as ornamental plants (who hasn’t had an asparagus fern in a planter?) Best known is the garden variety, asparagus offcinalsis , which thrives in subtropical and temperate climes, even Edmonton.

The tasty spears of this hearty perennial push up from heavy root masses from early spring until warm weather sets in. Some varieties will produce through to mid-summer. Either way, the plant must have a period of winter dormancy to be happy.


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