When a Sydneysider talks of asparagus growing wild, it is usually ‘asparagus fern’ (Asparagus scandens) that they mean; and if not is likely to be ‘ground asparagus’ (A. aethiopicus), or ‘ferny aspargus’ (A. plumosus). Elsewhere in Australia they may also mean one or three other species (Asparagus asparagoides, A. africanus, or A. declinatus); all of them exotic and problematic bushland weeds and none of them as far as I know good to eat. So it was with some surprise that in a damp overgrown patch of bush in a park in western Sydney’s Quakers Hill that I came across the real thing, feral Asparagus officinalis. To be honest, I didn’t think that we had it around here. It doesn’t come up in the Cribbs food foraging bible (Wild Food in Australia), but Weeds Australia maps it as fairly widespread. Perhaps I actually have seen it before but just assumed it was one of the problem weeds, but now two years into having a cultivated asparagus bed I was quicker off the mark.
A particular delight with this find is that it puts me in the footsteps of the late great Euell Gibbons, whose much-loved book that pretty much marks the dawn of modern American foraging is titled Stalking the Wild Asparagus. In it, Gibbons finds a mesmerising nexus between a first person experiential narrative and an informative text that later mimics have struggled to match. This is not for want of better writing skills as much as usually simply not having as fascinating a life or as deep a knowledge. That the chapter on wild asparagus gives the name to the book is no doubt partly because it is catchy, but it is also surely how much that particular foraging quest is a metaphor for the deeper wants of those seeking to engage with the natural world, foragers especially: The experience of elusive, ephemeral delicacies; whose arrival is awaited and not created, but true to their season; the season when life is new; which is all too soon past, but sure to come again.
It is said that wild asparagus comes with a greater intensity of flavour that the commercial crop. Western Sydney’s is no exception, and not without relief as I managed to find a meagre five spears on my first discovery. Called back to the site the next week, rather than just being able to pluck a few as I went about my business, I took the opportunity to turn up early and search on my own time. Even so, it was just a few more slender pickings; but still not disappointing, as I find myself agreeing with many on this plant – that it is more a cherished treat that heralds the Spring best simply partaken off rather than gorged on as a feast.
You might also like a great blog post on wild asparagus in America here