Hunting season is upon us, and I don’t mean turkey. Your friends on social media may be sharing photos of their prized harvest. Prod as much as you like, they probably won’t give up their favorite hunting ground.
Drive down a country road and you may observe folks stooped over, scouring the ditch. Unless they’re driving a loaded pickup, they’re probably not hunting for lost loot. More likely, they are doing meal preparation and searching for a prized asparagus crop.
My mom was an avid asparagus hunter. She knew the location of wild patches near our acreage. She might stop on her way home from work or take the four wheeler out, coming back with a handful or so. There wouldn’t always be enough to have an exclusive side of asparagus. For less productive hauls, she’d make cream of asparagus soup. Sautéed asparagus, milk/cream, some butter, salt and pepper… we could still enjoy a meal.
I’ve lived near Beresford and Vermillion for most of my life. I was sad to see a corner of agricultural land worked over near where I grew up. A cottonwood grove was leveled to make room for more crops, and an asparagus patch that had thrived for many years was gone. One of our neighbors watched that patch pretty close, essentially claiming it. I seldom got to pluck any there, but was sad to see the line destroyed.
One benefit of driving these roads for multiple decades, I’ve built a small cache of asparagus hotspots. And every year when the plants have gone to seed, I'm annoyed at how many potential feasts I've passed by.
Remembering exactly where an established patch can be found takes some practice. David Graper with SDSU’s extension office explained that the asparagus plant is spread through the country by birds. They eat the seeds that appear in the fall. You see many plants along fence lines, birds deposit the seeds while perched on a wire.
Once a plant is established, it probably won’t be going anywhere. Thanks to advancing cell phones, you can create pins on a digital map to plot your finds. Use care, sharing spots is not common among enthusiasts.
Fall is the best time to hunt. Tall, seeded out, fern like foliage is easy to spot above the plane of a roadway ditch. After a bit more time, asparagus lose their green hue. Golden stocks stand out like beacons among the still green grass.
I enjoy going for bicycle rides and scanning the ditch lines. It’s easier to observe potential patches when you’re going 15 mph or so. Once spring comes along, I’m hitting spots between work and home, hoping to find enough for dinner that night.
When I share my plans, my six year old typically exclaims, “Asparagus… Eeeew!” The vegetable is certainly an acquired taste, but he still enjoys the hunt.
Thanks to Facebook, I was able to archive this revelation:
Son on asparagus: "I haven't tried it... but I don't like eating 'sparsgus. Only picking it. I like picking 'sparagus and mushrooms, but NOT eating them!!!"
And that’s okay. You still have an opportunity to cultivate respect for responsible foraging with your kids, even if they haven’t developed a taste for it yet.
If a patch is at the end of someone’s driveway… even if a ditch is public right of way, the home owner typically has dibs. Residents can be passionate about “their” asparagus. You might ask a resident if they harvest from the patch and if you might be able to take a few spears.
Regardless of where you harvest asparagus, do no harm to the landscape. Digging up an existing patch is unnecessary at best.
Learn to harvest a spear appropriately. Believe it or not, technique is important. Cutting a spear properly encourages regrowth through the season. SDSU’s extension office offers tips.
While the thrill of the hunt is certainly appealing, dependable sources exist. Asparagus can be cultivated in your garden, though patience is key. It may take a couple of seasons before the spears are an appropriate size for harvest (about the size of a pencil). A third option, stop down to your local farmer’s market. There are a number of producers with several varieties available.
According to social media, folks in my neighborhood have been harvesting for approximately a week. If you start going out now, you’ll probably have another month or so to enjoy sautéed spears with butter.
Hunting asparagus can certainly be time consuming, but what a great way to have some time outside. I know that’s part of the appeal for my mom. I wish I had gone hunting more often with my mother, but I’m glad to tote my kiddos along now. Right now my oldest enjoys picking yellow dandelions while I pluck green spears from the ground. Perhaps someday I’ll try incorporating dandelion greens into a salad. I’ve heard that others do.
In the meantime, I hope to share with my children an enjoyment of the outdoors, land stewardship and resourcefulness. Serving for dinner something that you had to track down, it’s kind of epic.