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Top 5 Ways Asparagus, A Rite Of Spring, Can Still Surprise

Mar 13, 2014
Originally published on March 13, 2014 6:35 pm

As the snow melts, even in Minnesota, and daylight lingers into evening, people who like to eat with the seasons know what's coming: asparagus.

"Asparagus means the beginning of spring. It's spring!" says Nora Pouillon, chef and founder of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C. Later this month, she'll revise her menu, and it will certainly include asparagus with salmon, and asparagus soup.

It's an elegant vegetable, Pouillon says, and unique: "Sweet and bitter at the same time."

Taste, however, is only the surface of asparagus's eccentricities. And since this is the web, here's a list of them: five little-known facts about this iconic spring vegetable, from the botanical to the economic. (I won't explore the funny smell, though. That's old news.)

1. That green spear on your plate wanted to be a "fern."

Botanically speaking, asparagus is an oddity among vegetables. First of all, farmers only plant a new asparagus crop every 10 or 15 years, and they don't start with seeds. Instead, farmers plant "crowns," which are the roots of 1-year-old asparagus plants. Those roots will grow underground, year after year, and every spring, when the weather gets warm, the roots will send up green spears. If the spears aren't harvested, they will turn into big and bushy "ferns." (Yes, we know it's not actually a fern.)

2. Asparagus spears grow ridiculously fast.

Scott Walker, president of the world's biggest asparagus seed company (Walker Brothers, of Pittsgrove, N.J.), says that he's heard that on really hot days, asparagus can grow an inch per hour. But he's never actually measured them. During harvest season, farmers struggle to stay ahead of the growing spears. Each field has to be harvested every day, and sometimes even twice a day.

"I remember one year, it went from cold to hot, and it looked like the hair on a dog's back out there in the field. It was everywhere, and we could not keep up," Walker says.

After about six or eight weeks, farmers stop harvesting and let them grow wild. The plant needs to grow into a fern to capture energy from the sun and store it in the root for the next growing season.

3. Asparagus plants are either male or female.

The female plants make berries, containing seeds. The male plants just make flowers, containing pollen. But both of them produce spears.

4. America imports close to 90 percent of its asparagus.

It wasn't always this way. As recently as 1989, the U.S. grew more asparagus than it consumed, and exported slightly more than it imported. In those days, asparagus consumption followed a predictable pattern: California's fields kicked off the asparagus season, followed by Washington, New Jersey and Michigan.

But since then, imports have boomed, while U.S. production has been shrinking. The trend has accelerated in the last 10 years. You can now get fresh asparagus all winter long, mostly from Peru. Scott Walker has seen those operations. "They will harvest in the morning. That night it's on a plane. The next morning it's here in the U.S.," he says.

In early spring, an even bigger wave of imports arrives from Mexico. It's making life miserable for asparagus growers in California. "I call it a marketing train wreck," says Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission. "There's a huge supply on the market, right when we're coming on with our new crop. The price is extremely depressed. We haven't seen prices this low in years."

The basic problem for California's growers is simply that harvesting asparagus takes a lot of hands, and labor is much more expensive here than in Mexico.

5. Right now, California's asparagus growers are slicing up their crop in the field.

Many of these farmers are driving through their fields with sharp metal disks that cut off the asparagus spears. "That delays production anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks," says Angulo.

By then, the farmers are hoping that the flood of Mexican production will be done, and prices will be higher. But this year's problems are likely to accelerate the exodus of farmers from asparagus production. American farmers are growing only a third as much of this vegetable as they did 20 years ago, even though American consumers are eating more of it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As the snow melts, even in Minnesota and daylight lingers into the evening, people who like to eat with the seasons know what's coming, asparagus. But global trade is upsetting this vegetable's traditional time table. Almost 90 percent of American's asparagus now comes from abroad. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Later this month, Nora Pouillon will redo the menu for her restaurant, also called Nora, in Washington D.C. and she'll certainly add asparagus.

NORA POUILLON: Asparagus means the beginning of spring. It's spring. It's spring.

CHARLES: She'll serve those long green spears with salmon, the lower thicker part that people might not like so much, that goes into the soup.

POUILLON: And so I have soup on nearly every day, asparagus soup.

CHARLES: It's an elegant vegetable, Pouillon says, healthy, increasingly popular and different from any other vegetable.

POUILLON: It is sweet and bitter at the same time.

CHARLES: It's not just the taste that sets it apart. Asparagus doesn't grow like other vegetables either. It's a plant that demands patience and long term commitment. Just ask Scott Walker, president of Walker Brothers, the world's biggest asparagus seed company.

SCOTT WALKER: You plant this, this guy right here, and that will be with you for about 10 to 15 years depending on how well you take care of it.

CHARLES: We're in a big barn in southern New Jersey. It's cold in here. Walker is pointing at a pile of dirty tangled roots. These are asparagus crowns, one-year-old plants. Each one grew from a seed in a field in Michigan, a kind of open air asparagus nursery. Now, they're ready to go into production.

WALKER: We ship these all over the U.S.

CHARLES: They travel in refrigerated trucks. Farmers will drop these crowns, which look like big droopy spiders, into long ditches in their fields, cover them up and wait. That root will stay in the ground for a decade or more, growing.

WALKER: It gets to be a very, very large root.

CHARLES: And every year, when the soil warms up...

WALKER: That's when that spear starts to pop.

CHARLES: Farmers don't have a lot of control over the timing. It depends on the weather. But they have to react quickly. When the weather is warm, that root will send up spears that can grow a foot in a single day.

WALKER: I remember one year it went from cold to hot and that looked like the hair on a dog's back out there in that field. It was everywhere and we could not keep up.

CHARLES: Fields have to be picked every day, sometimes twice a day for about six weeks. Walker says there's always been a kind of natural calendar of asparagus production in this country. California is harvesting now.

WALKER: April, we start in Washington state. Late April, Jersey kicks in. Mid-May, Michigan, those guys get going.

CHARLES: But that rhythm is getting badly disrupted by trade and technology. You can get asparagus all winter long now from farms in Peru. Walker's seen those operations.

WALKER: They will harvest in the morning. That night, it's on a plane. The next morning, it's here in the U.S.

CHARLES: But there's also a wave of imports from Mexico right in early spring, prime asparagus season, is making life miserable for asparagus growers in California.

CHERIE WATTE ANGULO: The price is extremely depressed. We haven't seen prices this low in years.

CHARLES: Cherie Watte Angulo is executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.

ANGULO: I refer to this as a marketing train wreck because you have a huge amount of supply on the marketplace right at the time when we're coming on with our new crop.

CHARLES: The basic problem for California's growers is that harvesting asparagus takes lots of hands and labor is a lot more expensive here than in Mexico. So many of California's growers are not even bothering to harvest their crop at the moment. Instead, they're driving through their fields with sharp metal discs that cut off the asparagus spears before they emerge.

ANGULO: This delays production anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, knowing that in a couple of weeks, a new burst of asparagus will come through the ground.

CHARLES: The farmers are hoping that by that time, the flood of imports from Mexico will be done and prices will be higher again. But some are thinking maybe it's time to stop growing asparagus altogether. That's been the trend. Even though Americans are eating more asparagus, American farmers are growing less of it. Only about a third as much as 20 years ago. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.