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Hunting for wild asparagus

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Spring and early summer are a fine time to go wildcrafting in Northern New Mexico, the fine art and science of gathering nature's bounty in their natural habitat. It means knowing where and in which seasons to find certain herbs and edible plants. Unlike walking into a grocery store and simply buying vegetables, edible plants in the wild often have to be gathered during a limited time period when they are at their peak.

Wild asparagus is among the plants best harvested early, when the tips are young and succulent. And wild asparagus loves growing near some of the Taos Valley acequias. Finding it requires a sharp eye, a bit of walking and some luck, though. It can sometimes be hard to spot amid tall grass or brush near the irrigation ditches.

Asparagus was a European transplant that escaped farms and gardens to spread wherever moist conditions and the right soils were found, including Northern New Mexico.

"To stalk the wild asparagus is to touch the shadow of our greatest modern forager, the late Euell Gibbons," writes blogger Hank Shaw of honest-food.net.

Shaw, who bills himself as a hunter, angler, gardener and chef, wrote an entire post devoted to "Foraging for Wild Asparagus." When he set out to learn about finding wild asparagus, he didn't have much luck. So he set about writing the little guide you can find on his blog.

"When you are ready to start, look for saline or alkaline soil," he writes. "Moisture is important. Asparagus doesn't want its feet wet, but wants to be close enough to get the benefit. This can be anywhere in the East and South, but in the arid West, you will need to focus on marsh edges, irrigation ditches and near cattle ponds or sloughs and streams."

The asparagus spears can be hard to find at first, but once you find a plant, note the location for the next year. It will likely be sending up succulent spears again, Shaw writes.

"It's a fact that a plant that is kept cut will send up more spears than one only harvested once," Shaw notes. "So you can come back to a patch a couple times. But be absolutely certain you leave several spears to grow fully, or you will weaken or even kill the plant. Asparagus can grow an inch a day in perfect conditions, so be vigilant."

Asparagus also is a great perennial plant to include as part of an edible landscape. Besides coming back year after year for a decade or longer once established, asparagus is a pretty fern-like plant as it matures. In the autumn, it turns a beautiful golden yellow.

Want to know how to grow asparagus intentionally in your New Mexico garden? Here's a how-to guide from New Mexico State University: aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/H244.pdf.

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