Long, skinny shoots with tender but strange-looking tips, colored a fresh green, purple, or even white. A sea of alien tentacles, requiring untold hours of labor and years of growing time that’s suddenly over in the blink of an eye, not to be seen for another year. Hadley, Mass. is often referred to as the capital region for this special kind of highly-seasonal local grass. What are we talking about? If you’re in the know, you’ve already guessed it: welcome to asparagus season! Spring is an exciting time in Massachusetts for this very special seasonal delight, that also goes great in a Z Wrap.
About Asparagus officinalis
What we commonly call “asparagus” is also known as sparrow grass, garden asparagus, or scientifically Asparagus officinalis. Asparagus is a perennial flowering plant species with debated origins and native range, whose young shoots are used as a spring vegetable. Asparagus was once classified in the lily family, alongside onions and garlic, but has now been split off into its own family group, Asparagaceae. It’s been a popular vegetable throughout history, with references to its purported properties and use or consumption dating back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It is believed to have entered the culinary sights of early Europe by the mid-1400’s, beginning in French monasteries, and spreading to Germany and England over the next century or so.
Why all the fuss about little green stems?
Asparagus may seem as ordinary and unassuming as any vegetable, but it’s significantly more complicated to grow.
Asparagus is a picky plant, and won’t grow just anywhere. It prefers sandy soils, and because it often comes from habitats in more marine environments, it’s much happier in soils that are too saline even for most weeds! Finding soil that makes asparagus happy is tricky, especially if you want to grow almost anything else alongside. Once planted, asparagus is also far from a quick crop: you can expect to wait about 3 years before you’ll get a full harvest.
And during that time, don’t get too comfy. Asparagus marches to the beat of its own drum, and won’t grow in neat, tidy rows--using any kind of machinery to control weeds is out. Only the young shoots are eaten. If the shoots grow too much and begin to branch out, they become tough, woody, and not very tasty. This means that when asparagus is ready to harvest, it must be picked right then and there. Wait even a day too long, and you’ll have to find a creative way to use the too-woody shoots. Put these two traits together and you’ll probably realize where this is going. All asparagus is harvested by hand, and there’s some to be picked daily! Each shoot must be individually snipped at the soil line or just below, just when it’s ready.
Why is it here?
The soil composition and average seasonal rainfall along the Connecticut River Valley proved ideal for asparagus cultivation and other specialty crops, including shade tobacco. Since the 1920’s, Hadley, Mass. has held the unofficial title of Asparagus Capital of the world. There are over 200 acres of Hadley farmland dedicated solely to this tender green vegetable, with more in the surrounding area. Numerous cultural and social events have also sprung up in celebration of this local celebrity. Community suppers, arts and culture tours, and even festivals all pop-up each spring as the season gets going.
How to Join In
Head to your local Farmer’s Market or stop by a roadside farm stand and grab a bunch of these green delights, perhaps tossing them in a Z Wrap while you shop. All the local farmer’s markets are springing back to life--including ours in Easthampton, which opens this Saturday, May 25th. Call up your area CSA groups or farms to inquire about a share or their market days. Visit you local community garden, whether to tend your own crop or help with a friend’s. Or check out any of the local events, including the free to attend, family-friendly WGBY Asparagus Festival - next Saturday, June 1st from 10am-6pm on the Hadley Common. If you’ve been looking for an excuse for a Z Wrap picnic that celebrates locally grown treasures, this might be your sign.
The asparagus featured here is wrapped in our signature Z Wrap "Painted Poppies" design.