Published on 05/10/04

Eat healthy -- May is national asparagus month

By Morgan Roan
University of Georgia

Many vegetables sprout in May. One of these healthful treats is asparagus. And wouldn't you know it? May is national asparagus month.

"Georgia doesn't grow much asparagus, probably because it's too hot in the summer," said George Boyhan, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "This crop is more prevalent in the Mid- Atlantic and upper Midwestern states."

Actually, asparagus is available year-round, but it's freshest during the spring. Crops are harvested from late February to June, with April, ironically, the prime month.

The stalks shoot up from the crown of the plant and grow into fern-like leaves when the shoots are allowed to develop. However, the edible stalks are harvested by hand before the actual fern leaves start growing.

From the time the seeds are sown, it's at least two years before the first asparagus stalks are harvested. "It is not until the third or fourth year that the plant will be at full production," Boyhan said.

"Large amounts cut during one year can affect the following year's production rates, too," he said, "making it harder for the plants to regenerate."

Asparagus crowns should be planted two to four weeks before the last spring frost. The plants grow through the summer and early fall, usually reaching about 3 feet tall, he said.

Asparagus is propagated by seeds or crowns. The plants are either male or female. The male produces more stalks, but the female's stalks are larger.

Under ideal conditions, an asparagus spear can grow seven inches in 24 hours. "Each crown will send up spears for six to seven weeks during the spring and early summer," Boyhan said.

Since the plants have about a 15-year life cycle, asparagus is one of the few vegetables grown as a perennial.

There are several types of asparagus.

Green. Most American asparagus is green and can range from pencil thin to very thick. The larger the diameter of the stalk, the better the quality.

White. White asparagus is mostly eaten in Europe and can be hard to come by in the United States. It's white because of the way it's grown. Dirt is piled around the stalks, depriving it of sunlight. Since sunlight is required to create chlorophyll, the stalks are white. These stalks are a little milder and more delicate.

Violet or Purple. This variety is most commonly found in England and Italy. It has a very thick, substantial stalk.

Wild. Asparagus grows wild in some areas, particularly in Europe. You'll most likely have to hunt down your own, as it is rarely available fresh in markets except in Italy and the south of France.

Whichever type you eat, asparagus is a low-calorie food with a variety of nutrients, said Connie Crawley, a UGA Extension Service nutrition and health specialist.

"One-half cup or six spears of boiled asparagus contains only 22 calories," she said. "It's comparable to other vegetables with regard to nutritional value."

Asparagus is high in folic acid and a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C and thiamin. "It contains very low fat and no cholesterol," Crawley said. "And it's low in sodium."

(Morgan Roan is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Morgan Roan is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.