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Stalk market

Post Independent/Kelley Cox
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Feel free to ask Pat McCarty anything you want about picking wild asparagus.Just don’t expect to get far if you want to know if he has some favorite spots for picking the vegetable.”Yeah, but I’m not going to divulge them,” he said.McCarty is the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension agent in Garfield County, where it’s asparagus picking season.It’s the time of year when Teresa Pollard finds perfect strangers bearing plastic bags taking a sudden interest in the roadside ditches along her Silt Mesa property.”There were people that were starting to pick asparagus probably, oh, at least three weeks ago if not more, and I’m still seeing them. My grandson and I go down and pick some occasionally,” she said.Picking wild asparagus is a Colorado tradition that goes back generations. McCarty remembers eating wild asparagus as he was growing up on the Front Range, and said picking it can be a great family activity.Asparagus thrives in the moist conditions along ditches. McCarty said it probably also can be found around old homesteads where pioneers planted it.People who aren’t specifically looking for asparagus aren’t likely to find it.”I have picked it,” said Alice Jones, who works at the Silt Historical Park. “And you do have to look for it and know what it looks like and get down in the grasses and pick it.”McCarty said once people get an eye for asparagus, it isn’t hard to find. And once they find one stalk, they’re likely to find a half-dozen or more nearby.He said the best asparagus spears are usually pencil- to finger-size in diameter, and up to a foot tall. You want to harvest them before they get taller and start going to seed, although it’s also good to leave some to regenerate, he said.People also tend to break off the spears, but the plant regenerates better when it is cut at an angle with a sharp knife, he said.Asparagus is low in calories and high in nutrients, including folic acid and potassium.”Asparagus is a little bit of a different kind of a thing,” McCarty said. “A lot of people really like it. A lot of people wouldn’t touch it.”Said Pollard, “It’s funny because it is really good, and occasionally you’ll get something that’s just as bitter as can be.”McCarty noted that asparagus also is known for making people’s urine stink.”There’s no doubt about it, if you eat it you’re going to know that evening or the next morning because it can be pretty nasty,” he said.On the plus side, asparagus is easy to prepare. McCarty said just wash it, cut off the bases, then boil the spears for a few minutes. He likes his asparagus with butter or melted cheese.Said Pollard, “I used to always just steam it, but my husband really likes it if you take olive oil and sauté (the asparagus) in a frying pan with minced garlic, salt and pepper,” she said.The vegetable also goes well with lemon juice.McCarty freezes some asparagus for later use.”I don’t think it’s quite as good as fresh,” he said.McCarty and others warn against picking asparagus in ditches that have been sprayed for weeds.Silt Historical Park director Alice Boulton thinks spraying, along with installation of irrigation pipes in what once were well-watered irrigation ditches, have reduced the amount of asparagus to be found.Nevertheless, said McCarty, “I think there’s still plenty of it out there.”That said, stalkers of asparagus stalks can be awful protective of their prime picking locations.So if you’re driving down a country road and see a bag-wielding ditch-walker suddenly look up, start whistling and pretend to be just enjoying the view, count yourself lucky.You may have just discovered one of McCarty’s secret stashes.Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com• Asparagus is a member of the lily family, which also includes onions, leeks and garlic. • There are three varieties of asparagus – green, purple and white. The green variety is the most common. The white variety is grown without exposure to sunlight.• Asparagus is a good source of vitamin C and potassium and is low in calories (5-6 spears have 22 calories and no fat).• Most asparagus produced in the U.S. is grown in California and Washington; California currently leads the nation in asparagus production. Mexico and Chile export asparagus to the U.S. Peak season for asparagus in the U.S. is February to June, with April being the most active month.• Most people think that the larger spears aren’t as tender as the thin ones, but that’s not true. The thickness of a spear depends on how old the plant is. Younger plants produce thinner spears and older plants produce thicker spears. As long as the asparagus is fresh, it will be tender.• The Wild Asparagus Ball is held annually in Fort Collins at Colorado State University. It is an elegant evening of dance with a note of formality. This year, the dance is on May 6, beginning at 8 p.m.• The people of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire used asparagus medicinally, for preventing bee stings and soothing toothaches. Many cultures, from the Arabs to the French, extol the aphrodisiac powers of asparagus. • According to the experts, the best places to search for wild asparagus are wherever there is a continual source of water. Favorite places include river banks, along highway ditches, and areas where there are thriving stands of trees. But the best spots are those found along irrigation canals.• And in case you’re wondering, the reason your urine smells after consuming asparagus is because it contains a sulfur compound called mercaptan. Enzymes in your body break down the mercaptan into its stinky component parts.- by Gabrielle Devenish


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