We parked at the end of a dead-end street, climbed through a hole in the fence and walked onto a bridge. Part way across, we jumped over the guardrail and descended a steep embankment onto a gravelly island in the middle of the river.
The air reeked of the nearby sewage treatment plant, which, though upwind of us, was thankfully downstream. We could hear cars thundering across the bridge and the billboards by the road were close enough to read.
Our guide, who I'll call the Asparaguy, surveyed the scene, a hand on his forehead to block the sun. With his other hand he pointed to a cluster of plants. They were about 4 feet tall with delicate, feathery leaves radiating perpendicularly from a central stalk. We rushed over.
At the base of the cluster was a young shoot of the same plant, only about 10 inches tall and yet to develop leaves. A wild asparagus shoot. I picked it with a quick snap.
Soon our asparagus eyes were adjusted and similar clumps began to appear everywhere. We trotted from clump to clump, chattering happily like the birds that spread the asparagus seeds. With green spears in our fingers like edible cigars, we munched regally.
In his classic tome Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons reflects that even though wild asparagus is genetically identical to the cultivated kind (Asparagus officinalis), and the amount of time invested gathering offsets any cost savings, he still hunts it because, "When I am out along the hedgerows and waysides gathering wild asparagus, I am twelve years old again, and all the world is new and wonderful."
The title chapter of the book explains the special place wild asparagus holds in Gibbons' heart. While on his way fishing one morning, as a young lad, he discovered his first asparagus patch, and that moment opened the door to foraging. Since then, he's advanced to acorns, sweet birch, wild cherries, groundnuts and knotweeds. He's gathered crawfish, frogs, wild honey and sassafras, made tea from wildwood, and "beaten the pigs to the pigweed."
Both Gibbons and the Asparaguy initiated me into the central paradox of stalking the wild asparagus. To wit: When it's easy to spot, you've missed your chance.
In other words, the beautiful fronds we saw waving in the riverbank breeze were waving goodbye, because by the time the shoots reach the stage where they're visible from afar, they aren't worth eating anymore. If you're lucky, like we were, you might find a few straggler spears growing at the base of the older shoots, but don't expect to fill your bucket with those. As you read this, the season of wild asparagus is all but passed.
So why am I writing about wild asparagus now, and not two months ago?
Well, the other side of the paradox is that if I had sent you on a wild asparagus hunt in early spring, at the height of edibility, it would have been more like a wild goose chase. Before you can reap what you did not sow, you must pay your dues in other ways. In this case, dues are paid by scouting. Now is when you pay up for next year's harvest.
"I was crossing the bridge on my bike last September when I saw them," explains the Asparaguy. "They were turning yellow, standing out against the other greenery. I made a mental note where they were and came back this spring and cleaned up."
Just then there was an explosion in the bushes in front of us as a female mallard took to the air. We could think of only one reason a duck would be hanging out on dry land this time of year. Sure enough, we found a nest with six good-sized eggs.
Duck egg and asparagus omelets, anyone?
We looked at each other conspiratorially. "Of course," reasoned Asparaguy, "we don't know the stage of development. We'd probably find a baby duck inside, not an egg."
Thus relieved of this tempting ethical dilemma, we pushed onward, under the bridge, past the shopping carts and fire rings of a homeless camp, and scored a few more spears on the other side.
Asparagus likes moisture and well-drained soil, so it's no surprise that we hit the motherload on a gravel island in the middle of a river. And when you find a patch, you might get lucky and score some late shoots.
Or you might get really lucky and stumble upon a patch already picked by someone else a patch that's consistently harvested will produce long into the summer. The discovery of such a clump raises another ethical dilemma: whether or not to raid someone else's stash.
By picking the shoots rather than letting them flower, you are encouraging the plant to send up more shoots, which it will do until one of them flowers. By raiding someone's stash, you could be helping to keep it productive.
That's what you should tell them, anyway, when they corner you under the bridge...