The answer to the question what is asparagus depends on your persepctive. If you've never eaten it asparagus is a tender succulent, flavoursome vegetable that is most simply eaten lightly steamed with melted butter. The part that is eaten are the first young shoots that come up in spring and the very tips of the shoots are the asparagus tips that are incredible tender and delicious.
The Collins dictionary defines asparagus as a noun:
and the Oxford English dictionary defines it as :
" A plant ( Asparagus officinalis, family Liliaceæ) cultivated for the sake of its vernal shoots, which form a well-known delicacy of the table. Bot. The genus which contains this among many other species"
The scientific classification is alluded to in the dictionary definitions.
Asparagus is a Genus of the Liliaceae family a sub group of flowering plants. There are of the order of 100 genus' in the lilaceae family one of which is Lilium (which we commonly know as Lily's) and another is Asparagus L. While there are around 30 species of Lily there are only 5 species of asparagus these being:
Asparagus africanus Lam. – African asparagus
Asparagus asparagoides (L.) Druce – African asparagus fern
Asparagus densiflorus (Kunth) Jessop – Sprenger's asparagus fern
Asparagus officinalis L. – garden asparagus
Asparagus setaceus (Kunth) Jessop – common asparagus fern
The vegetable we know as asparagus is the young shoots of Asparagus Officinalis L.
The gardener's will be interested to know that the garden asparagus is a perenial plant that lives for many years (in good conditions typically 15 years or more) with young shoots growing form a crown or tuberous root system each year and developing into a tall wispy fern each year before dying back in the autumn.
It can take some time and patience to get a good asparagus bed growing but it is well worth the wait.
Asparagus is at its best as a fresh vegetable. As already explained it is the young shoots of the asparagus officinalis plant and is in season in the spring (April to June in the UK). Locally bought produce eaten just after cutting has a very distinctive flavour advantage over imported produce but imported produce is now available year round in Europe and North America typically from Peru, Mexico and occasionally Thailand.
The fresh produce is harvested and sold when the shoots are between 6 and 10 inches in length and range from slim , 0.5cm - 1cm to around 1.5 cm in thickness. How thick the shoots are is not an indication of quality or flavour with different varieties having different thicknesses and all sizes coming with great flavour. A well closed tip that has not started to flower is favoured, as are straight stalks but you may pick up a very flavoursome bargain if you find a supply of "wonky asparagus" that the supermarkets don't want!
As well as green asparagus some varieties come with a purple colouring and these can be very sweet. You may also come across white asparagus (especially on the continent), this type of asparagus is grown from the same varieties of asparagus as the green produce but by a different growing process. Earth is mounded up as the shoots grow depriving them of light such that they are then harvested whilst still white. This type of asparagus is very popular in Germany and usualy needs peeling.
Finally you will also find canned asparagus, both green and white. Ultra thick white asparagus is sold as a premium product and attracts a premium price. Whilst fresh green and purple asparagus are widely enjoyed the appreciation of white and canned varieties are subject to more regional variation.
The easiest way to cook Asparagus!
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Basics of how to cook fresh asparagusstart by looking at How to Cook Asparagus first for some background information on a range of cooking methods.
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