Asparagus Racemosus (Shatavari) is recommended in ayurvedic medicine for prevention and treatment of gastric ulcers (peptic ulcer disease), dyspepsia (indigestion) and as a galactagogue.
For at least 2000 years, people have enjoyed cultivated asparagus, developed goodness knows how long ago from the wild asparagus, Asparagus officinalis, that still grows naturally in the waste places of Europe.
In other parts of the world where it is not a naturally growing plant, asparagus has escaped from gardens and set up on its own, helped by the actions of birds and the wind, to the extent that it has now officially naturalized itself in the United States.
Asparagus is a member of the lily family. A decorative species, used by flower shops, is called “asparagus fern”, although it is not a fern.
There is also an edible subspecies of garden asparagus, Asparagus prostratus, that grows wild on the sea-coast of the southern British Isles. A different species altogether, Asparagus aphyllus, grows in dry rocky places in the Mediterranean region, and is sold mainly in Spanish markets in the spring.
We can understand how asparagus naturalized itself so quickly in the US. A good half of our yearly crop now grows outside the boundaries of the garden beds in which the crowns were first planted, and every season we find new stands of feral asparagus flourishing in various places. Where it has settled by the dam and the creek, we have to protect the plants from the sheep.
There are several varieties of asparagus and each has its champion. Some are green, some are purple touched, some fat and stubby, others long and thin. Some people like the blanched white stalks that are cut while the stalk is still below the ground. Others like the green stalks that have grown about 200 mm above the ground and have had a taste of the sun.
The most common form in which asparagus is sold at the market is in round bunches of white or green medium-thick stalks, all of a size and shape, about 200mm long, and held together with an elastic band.
Much of it is still cut by hand with special knives, and a certain amount of skill is needed to cut the stalks to the right length without damaging the future of the plant.
Asparagus should be eaten within days of harvest. Transport and storage from grower to market are efficient, but at the end of the chain of supply, bunches can linger on a shop counter for too long, so that the stalks dry out to the tip, and become woody.
The old test for freshness in asparagus was to squeeze the cut end of each stalk between finger and thumb. If the stalk end expressed a drop or two of moisture, the asparagus was still fresh.
One cannot do this when the asparagus is packed in tight bunches. The best bet these days is to choose asparagus that looks bright-colored, fresh and sleek, with tightly closed tips.
You don’t really need recipes for eating asparagus. The best way is to steam it, and eat it with a dash of salt and maybe a little melted butter — as close to nature as you can.
With a bunch, you get the best results if you stand the bunch up right in a closed pot, with the stalk-ends standing in the bubbling water and the tips in the steam. Remember to remove the rubber band round the bunch before doing this. It will improve the flavor mightily.