Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 716   May 4, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Robert s Mann, Conservation Editor

This writer happens to be an inveterate hunter of wild asparagus. Not only because it is more tender and has a better flavor than any cultivated asparagus for sale in stores and roadside stands; nor the satisfaction from cleverly getting something for nothing; but mostly because of the extra dividends -- intangible benefits -- that accrue during the searches for delectable stalks of this unique plant.

"In my opinion", says he, "that is one of the most rewarding of all outdoor pastimes. We members of the Sparrowgrass Clan harvest more to take home and see more and learn more of the plant and animal worlds about us than the Frosty-toed Tribe of ice fishermen, the bank fishermen, the dandelion diggers, or the berry pickers. We're not as sedentary as the fishermen nor as active as the hikers. Like the mushroom hunters, sharp-eyed, we saunter. .

Wild asparagus, as a plant, is no different from the common garden vegetable which has been under cultivation for over 2000 years. In Britain, Europe, Africa and Asia -- especially in coastal areas, salt marshes, and on the steppes of Russia -- it grows wild. In this country it is commonly a "weed" in old fields and along roadsides where it has escaped from cultivation by means of birds that eat the small red berries on mature plants and excrete the undigested seeds. That is why the wild plants are so abundant and prolific in a section of the DesPlaines valley across the river from where there used to be a large asparagus farm.

Asparagus is a perennial (the same plant comes up and grows year after years in the Lily Family and closely related to the lily-of-the- valley. It has a mat of fleshy cordlike roots with fine branches. In spring the rootstock sends up thick fleshy shoots or "spears" bearing, especially at the tips, scales that are really degenerate leaves. If cut a day or so after they appear -- before they become too tall and fibrous -- and eaten within a few hours, the spears are tender and delicious. They begin to deteriorate as soon as gathered; they toughen rapidly and, except the tips, become "stringy" within 24 hours unless refrigerated. That is why we hunt for wild asparagus: it can be cooked and eaten right away.

Asparagus is dioecious: the staminate (male) and pistillate (female) flowers are borne on separate plants. The small drooping greenish- yellow flowers are followed, on the pistillate plants, by small red berries. Male plants produce more spears but female plants produce larger ones. When mature and from 3 to 10 feet tall, an asparagus plant has many slender branches with fernlike branchlets that function instead of leaves. Its only true leaves are minute scales.

Afield of asparagus may yield over two tons of spears per acre and, with good care, should produce for 20 years. If green shoots are to be harvested for marketing, the field is kept nearly flat with just enough soil over the crowns to protect them from cultivating tools. If white or blanched shoots are desired, for salads or canning, the soil is ridged up over the rows each spring so that a shoot becomes about 10 inches in length before it emerges. They are harvested daily during the cutting season which usually lasts 8 or 10 weeks.

During 14 springs, while searching for wild asparagus in that Des Plaines valley area, this "sparrowgrass hunter" made many instructive observations of plants and animals and had some memorable experiences. Included were the finding of a marsh hawk's nest and the domelike nest of an oven bird amidst the prairie vegetation; watching three young groundhogs nibble clover while their mother stood upright on guard near the den; watching a woodcock probing mud for worms, a goldfinch plucking tufted seeds from a dandelion, and a spittlebug building a blob of froth on a weed. Those were a few of the extra dividends.

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