Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is a member of the lily family and related to onions, leeks, and garlic. Prized by the Greeks and Romans, this perennial is believed to have originated in the temperate regions of southwestern Asia and the Mediterranean basin.
Widely cultivated in the United States, top production states include California, Washington, and Michigan, though New Jersey grows commercially and Rutgers University researchers are credited with developing many of today’s most popular varieties.
Due to high demand and falling acreage, imports from Mexico, Peru, and Chile augment supply.
Asparagus plants are particularly resilient and have been known to grow wild (often called ‘sparrowgrass’) along railroad tracks and roadsides in the United States.
Types & Varieties
There are two main types of asparagus: green or white (blanched). Each refers to the color of the vegetable—white asparagus has a mild, sweet flavor while green has a more ‘woody’ or slightly bitter taste. Although white asparagus was popularized in Europe, it has become increasingly popular in the United States.
Both types have smooth, spear-like stalks with firm, crunchy flesh. The greener or whiter the asparagus, the more tender the spears. Purple asparagus, of mostly French and Italian varieties, is less common. These cultivars are more tender and sweet than their green asparagus siblings.
Varieties of asparagus have shifted in recent years with the older standards such as Mary Washington, Martha Washington, and Waltham Washington losing ground to newer all-male flowering plants (which produce more spears).
Among these varieties are Jersey Giant, Jersey Knight, Jersey Prince, Jersey Supreme, Apollo, Purple Passion, and Viking KBC. Advantages of the newer hybrids include higher yields, better cold tolerance, and resistance to fungal diseases.