Green Gifts from the Mediterranean

0ur common garden asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) is only one of several species of asparagus that are edible, but it is by far the most important. Our name for it is the Latinized form of the old Greek word, and its name in most other modern languages is easily recognized as of the same origin: asperge (French), Spargel (German), asperge (Dutch), espárrago (Spanish).

English and American colloquialisms are sparagrass, sparrowgrass, and, among larger growers of the crop, just "grass."

Asparagus Once Considered a Cure-all

Asparagus is believed native to the eastern Mediterranean lands and Asia Minor. It commonly grows wild over much of that country today and also in the trans-Caucasus, Europe, and even in many places in the United States where it has escaped from cultivation. It thrives along riverbanks, shores of lakes, and even close to the salty waters of seacoasts, tolerating considerable salt in the soil in which it grows. It has been found "wild" in so many places that there has been much argument as to where it actually originated.

Before asparagus was used for food, it had quite a reputation as a medicine for almost anything from the prevention of bee stings to heart trouble, dropsy, and toothache!

The Greeks apparently collected asparagus only from the wild, since they gave no directions for cultivating it. The Romans, however, as early as 200 B.C. gave detailed gardening instructions that would be considered good today, except for one thing-they preferred the seed of wild plants for planting. Three hundred years later, such progress in development had been made that the cultivated forms were consistently as good as the best wild plants.

In Roman times asparagus was not only eaten "in season" but was dried for later use. It was simply and quickly prepared by boiling the dried shoots. The Emperor Augustus is supposed to have been very fond of it and to have originated a saying, "Quicker than you can cook asparagus."

North Europeans and Britons have been eating asparagus for as long as there are any records about them. Its introduction into the Americas and other lands made no ripple worth noting at the time, but because of its old popularity it was presumably taken to those lands by early voyagers. It is now a universally popular vegetable.

Asparagus is unusual, among our garden plants, in its flowering habit. While nearly all of our vegetables bear both stamens and pistils (containing pollen cells and egg cells, respectively) on the same plant or in the same flower, asparagus has two kinds of plants. About half bear only staminate flowers; the others bear only pistillate flowers from which the little red seed-bearing fruits develop. Both kinds must be grown near each other if seeds are to be obtained. The pistillate plants produce larger and better shoots than the staminate plants, but not quite so many of them.

Asparagus is a perennial plant which, under the best conditions, will remain productive up to 30 to 35 years and will live much longer. Formerly it was grown almost entirely with the soil ridged up high over the roots at harvest time so that the shoots would develop in the dark and be white, as harvested. Now, however, we have learned to prefer green shoots which develop in the light, so that ridging is no longer so common.

Endive Related to Chicory

Endive is shown with asparagus in the painting only because it is native to the same general region as asparagus, and, like it, was used as food by the ancients of Mediterranean lands. The two are not at all related botanically and are grown and used quite differently. Endive (Cichorium endivia) is closely related to chicory, which has been introduced, as a garden plant and has escaped and become a weed over large areas of the Temperate Zone.

Endive was eaten by the Egyptians and by the Greeks long before the Christian Era. The Romans of the first century after Christ also used it, both as a salad and cooked as greens.

Two kinds of endive were grown in northern Europe in the 13th century. Several 16th century writers described the plant in England, France, and Germany. European colonists brought it to America, where in 1806 three varieties were described, substantially the same as those grown today.

Many people dislike the slight bitterness of endive, but others consider it rather sprightly. It is easily grown, is an attractive ingredient of raw-vegetable salads, is more tolerant to heat than lettuce, and especially for an autumn salad crop in our gardens it deserves far more popularity than it now enjoys in America.

French endive, or witloof chicory (Cichorium intybus), closely related to endive, is little grown as a vegetable in America, but is popular in France and Belgium. The dried, ground, and roasted root of common chicory is used as an adulterant of coffee and even as a substitute for it.