Wild Asparagus and Wild Greens: Enjoying What Nature Gives Us

We can find real food growing everywhere, even in ditches alongside the roads. Wild asparagus and wild greens are a nutritious food source that grow in several unlikely places.

| March/April 1976

Euell Gibbons' first book on foraged foods, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, was published in 1962 and I bought a copy shortly thereafter. How ironic. Here I was, a farm boy who'd grown up with great-aunts and great-uncles who regularly gathered wild strawberries and mushrooms and greens and — except for my experiences with hickory nuts and black walnuts — I was learning to collect and eat volunteer edibles from a book! But that's the way it was. And I still owe Euell a debt of gratitude for opening my eyes to the magnificent quantities of food that Nature will provide us free of charge  if we'll only let her.—JS. 

Finding and Recognizing Wild Asparagus
(Asparagus officinalis)

When I was about twelve years old we lived near the Rio Grande in New Mexico. At that age, I didn't mind school so badly when winter weather made it disagreeable to be outdoors, but, when the first warm days of spring arrived, I only existed through the five school days each week in order to really live on Saturdays. I would be off early every Saturday morning to the river, the woods or the surrounding hills to see what nature was doing about bringing the earth back to life, and to revel in all the changes that had taken place since the week before.

One such bright Saturday in spring, I was walking along the bank of an irrigation ditch, headed for a reservoir where I hoped to catch some fish. Happening to look down, I spied a clump of wild asparagus growing on the ditch bank, with half a dozen fat, little spears that were just the right size to be at their best. The idea of "reaping where I did not sow" has fascinated me all my life, I took out my pocketknife, cut the tender tips and dropped them into the pail in which I had intended to carry home any fish I might catch. Even while I was cutting this cluster, I saw another with several more perfect little sprouts. Alerted, I kept my eyes open and soon found another clump, and then another.

About this time I noticed that an old, dry, last-year's stalk stood above every clump of new asparagus tips. If I could learn to distinguish these old asparagus stalks from the surrounding dried debris, then I would be able to locate the hidden clusters of green spears from a distance. Despite my impatience to be off seeking more of these tender spears, I sat down on the ditch bank and for five minutes I did nothing but just look at one old dry asparagus stalk. It looked very much like the dead weeds and plants that surrounded it, and yet there were differences. The old asparagus plant stood about three feet high and had a central stem or "trunk" about a half inch in diameter which easily distinguished it from weeds with forking stems. Wind and winter weather had long since robbed the plant of its soft, threadlike foliage, but the horizontal branches were still there, though badly broken about the outer ends. These side branches, evenly spaced along the old stem, were larger near the ground and tapered to very small near the top, giving the whole plant a slender Christmas tree outline, although it was a very thin scraggly tree so late in the year. The color was different, too. Like all the rest of the dead plants it was straw-colored, but on the old asparagus the shade was lighter and the color somewhat brighter.

After getting the size, color and form thoroughly in my mind, I stood up and looked back along the ditch bank. Instantly, I saw a dozen old dead asparagus stalks that I had missed. I went back to where I had found the first clump and worked my way down the ditch again, and this time I really reaped a harvest. My pail was soon full, so I took off my undershirt, tied up the sleeves and neck opening, and filled it, too, full of fresh asparagus. I didn't bother to go fishing at all. Fresh, tender asparagus tips were far better food than the bony suckers I could catch in the reservoir.

During the next week we ate fresh asparagus every day. We had boiled and buttered asparagus, creamed asparagus, asparagus on toast and asparagus soup. I doubt that young people today can realize how good the first green vegetables of spring tasted in those days before quick freezing and fast transportation began furnishing us with fresh green vegetables all winter.

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