The edible species of asparagus is indigenous to temperate Europe and Asia. History records its culture at least 200 years before the Christian era. The Romans and the Greeks not only prized this vegetable for food, but all parts of the plant were highly valued for their medicinal properties. The shoots were often dried by the ancients, and, after soaking in hot water, only a few minutes were required in cooking. This method of preservation is still used in Europe, and to some extent in the United States. At least 400 years ago the peasants of France, Holland, Germany, Hungary and England gathered the tender shoots of the wild plants and sold them at the market places. For many hundreds of years stalks of mammoth size have been grown by gardeners in various countries. Asparagus has been a popular vegetable in America ever since the earliest settlements were established. It was doubtless introduced by seeds or plants brought from European gardens.
There are about 150 species of the genus Asparagus,, which belongs to the lily family. Although the shoots of a few other species are edible, Asparagus officinalis is the only one that has found a prominent place in the vegetable gardens of the world. The hardy, branching herbaceous plants are 3 to 7 feet high. The numerous filiform branchlets and the very fine delicate foliage make the tops valuable for decorative purposes. While the plant is herbaceous, the root stock or crown is perennial, making an annual growth of 1 to 3 inches. This extension is practically horizontal, although the rootstock or crown rises nearer the surface of the ground each succeeding year. The horizontal roots are fleshy, 1/8 to 1/4 inch in diameter and light colored. The small feeding rootlets form on the large succulent roots, and the latter gradually become hollow and die and are replaced by new roots.
Hexamer ("Asparagus," by F. M. Hexamer, p. 15) gives the following description of the flowers and the berries: "The asparagus flowers are mostly solitary at the nodes, of greenish-yellow color, drooping or filiform, jointed peduncles, perianth, six-parted, campanulate. Anthers, introrse; style, short; stigma, three-lobed; berry, red, spherical, three-celled; cells, two-seeded. While the flowers are generally dioecious—staminate and pistillate flowers being borne on different plants—there appear also hermaphrodite flowers, having both pistils and fully developed stamens in the same flower".
Asparagus is universally regarded as one of the most important vegetables. The home garden is not complete without it, and our markets are demanding a larger supply every year. It is grown in nearly all parts of the civilized world, but in France, Germany, Holland, England and the United States enormous quantities are produced for commercial purposes. It is said that more than 3,000 people are employed in the asparagus plantations near Paris. In the United States the enterprise has been developed to the greatest extent in New Jersey, California and New York, while it is an important crop in nearly every other state.
From early March until August this vegetable may be found on our city markets, and the forced crop is available to some extent throughout the winter. Nearly everybody enjoys this vegetable. .Formerly it was regarded as a luxury; now it is a neceiifiity. Notwithstanding the large increase in acreage, thousands of towns and small cities are poorly supplied with this delicious and wholesome vegetable.
The flavor and quality of asparagus may be preserved remarkably well by canning. Immense quantities are grown for this purpose, especially in California and on Long Island. For canning blanched "grass" is preferred, and large size of shoots counts for just as much in getting good prices as when they are sold on our markets. The factories often purchase by weight, paying from $80 to $200 a ton.
Nurserymen And Seedsmen catalog many kinds, but there are no complete botanical descriptions of American varieties. It is doubtful whether we have more than three or four distinct varieties, although there are doubtless many strains showing more or less variation.
Palmetto is unquestionably the leading American variety. A large proportion of our growers claim that no argument can be advanced for planting anything else. It is prolific, producing large shoots of good quality. It originated in the South, and is generally popular in the southern states, but it is largely planted in all other parts of the United States. The plants are more resistant to rust than any other variety, and this, undoubtedly, is the main reason for its popularity.
Argenteuil is a French variety, planted extensively around Paris and to a considerable extent in the United States. It has attracted wide attention in this country, and has given excellent results on many farms. Argenteuil has not done well on soils containing much clay or silt. There are two types, known as the Early and the Late Argenteuil.
Conover's Colossal was originated by Abraham Van Sicklen of Long Island and introduced by S. B. Con-over, a produce merchant of New York. It is the oldest and best known American variety, but has been supplanted very largely by newer varieties.
Barr's Mam Mothwas originated by Crawford Barr of Pennsylvania. It is regarded as an excellent variety and finds ready sale on the Philadelphia market.
Dreer's Eclipse is fairly popular, and is valued for its large and tender shoots.
Columbian Mammoth White, introduced by D. M. Ferry in 1893, is a favorite with some growers on account of the large, light-colored shoots.
Other varieties planted to some extent are Donald's Elmira, Hub and Moore's Cross-bred.
The asparagus plant seems to be well adapted to all temperate regions. While the most extensive plantations are usually at low altitudes and near large rivers or large bodies of water, their success is probably due more to favorable soil conditions than to climatic influences. This crop has been grown successfully in all parts of the United States, regardless of diversified climatic conditions.
Asparagus is grown successfully on a great variety of soils. It is generally admitted, however, that the deep, rich, moist, sandy loams provide the best conditions, although alluvial soils are valued. In the large plantations of Orange County, Cal., peat mixed with sand has given excellent results. Shoots of enormous size are produced in this region. But whatever the texture of the soil is, asparagus demands a liberal supply of humus, good drainage, also an abundant and constant supply of moisture. In a noted plantation of New Jersey the water table is only 3 feet from the surface. With this never-failing supply of water in co-operation with a rich sandy soil the results are highly satisfactory. Sandy soils are especially important for the growing of blanched asparagus, because it is very difficult to produce straight shoots and also troublesome to ridge and cut under ground in heavy, clay soils. Stones interfere seriously with the growth of the shoots, prevent thorough tillage, make ridging difficult and are especially annoying when cutting the shoots beneath the surface of the ground. Southern, southeastern and southwestern aspects are preferred by experienced growers, because they produce earlier crops than northern slopes. They also suffer less from drouth, and the soil is not transported as much by driving winds.