It’s hard to say which came first—my passion for asparagus or my abiding devotion to hollandaise sauce. Either way, when the two unite it means (at my house at least) that summer has arrived. Asparagus quality plummets quickly after harvesting: the sugar content drops and the formation of stringy, fibrous material increases, so the sweetest, most tender spears will always be the ones you grow and harvest yourself.
A member of the lily family, the Asparagus genus is a large one, containing almost 300 species, including everything from exotic woody shrubs and vines to familiar houseplants like South African asparagus ferns (A. densiflorus cvs.), and, of course, the delectable, young shoots of A. officinalis, which we consume as a vegetable. Native to Eurasia, asparagus has been cultivated in the Mediterranean region for more than 2,000 years; Roman writers provided meticulous instructions on how to grow it, and the Emperor Augustus’s (63 BCE - 14 AD) pet expression, “As quick as boiled asparagus,” is well documented.
Asparagus has escaped cultivation in Canada, and can be found growing wild as far north as the 55th parallel in all provinces except Saskatchewan. One of the few vegetables that are perennial in our climate, asparagus can be grown from seed or purchased as one-year-old crowns; harvesting begins at three years of age, and individual clumps may easily live as long as 50 years.