Asparagus is often one of the first signs of spring, and it’s a natural addition to many spring dishes. Asparagus is a perennial plant, and its edible young shoots can be cultivated to be green, white, purple or many other less popular varieties. Learn all about six common types of asparagus and their nutritional facts.
What is asparagus?
Asparagus Officinalis L. – best known by the common name asparagus – is a perennial flowering plant, which belongs to the angiosperm family Asparagaceae. There are more than two hundred species within that plant family, and some asparagus plants – when fully grown – can reach up to two meters. Asparagus – commonly found growing in the wild – was first cultivated in Greece more than 2500 years ago, and also ancient Romans enjoyed it. These early cultivated versions of asparagus had thinner stalks, were darker in colour and had a more bitter flavour than the asparagus we find at today's farmers' market. Today, asparagus grows naturally in sandy soils and Mediterranean climates, even though cultivated asparagus grows in regions as far south as Peru and New Zealand as far north as Germany.
Asparagus nutrition facts
Asparagus contains relatively large amounts of the amino acid asparagine, which gets its name from the vegetable, and it’s packed with vitamin K, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
Green asparagus – the variety you’re most likely to find at your local grocery store – gets its green colour from chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a pigment that gives plants their green colour, and it helps plants create their own food through photosynthesis. Green asparagus pokes through the early spring soil as it grows, absorbing the sun's rays and producing chlorophyll.
Green asparagus is a bit grassy in flavour and pairs well with lemon. It’s easy and fast to prepare as it’s thinner than other types of asparagus.
White asparagus is grown entirely underground, so colour-producing chlorophyll never develops, and the stalks stay white. Farmers cover white asparagus with thick mounds of dirt or black plastic so that no sunlight can reach the spears, a procedure called etiolation. Therefore, the white asparagus plant is not exposed to sunlight and doesn't produce chlorophyll. White asparagus is commonly found in Europe – it is grown in large quantities in France and Germany.
White asparagus has a milder, more delicate flavour and is slightly bitter with a dash of sweetness. The spears of white asparagus are thicker and more fibrous than green asparagus. In Europe, the white asparagus variety is typically simmered and then either drizzled with melted butter or dipped in hollandaise sauce.
Purple asparagus is originally from the Liguria region of Italy but is now also grown in many other countries. Purple asparagus gets its colour from high levels of anthocyanins, chemical compounds commonly found in vegetables and other plants. Purple asparagus is mild in flavour but sweeter and nuttier than green asparagus as it has a higher content of natural sugars than other asparagus varieties. When cooked, purple asparagus loses its colour and resembles a blend of artichoke and almonds.
The stalk thickness of purple asparagus can vary. Thick stalks tend to be woody, pungent, meaty, and fibrous, while thin stalks are soft, tender, and crunchy.
Purple asparagus comes in three main varieties: Pacific Blue, Purple Passion and Erasmus.
The Pacific Purple variety, originally from New Zealand, is high yielding, sweeter and much more tender than the green asparagus varieties. Pacific Purple also has a significantly lower fibre content which means it can be eaten both raw and cooked almost whole.
The Purple Passion variety is grown in California and has specks of green on its purple crowns. It is considered a connoisseur's selection of asparagus with a refined sweet flavour which becomes mildly nutty when cooked.
The Erasmus variety has a deep purple hue. The first unique purple 100% male purple asparagus in the world. Sweet taste, to be eaten raw or stir-fried.
Asparagus acutifolius – commonly known as wild asparagus – is an evergreen perennial plant. Acutifolius is derived from the Latin words acutus (acute), and folius (leaved), and refers to the characteristic shape of the leaves. This plant's less familiar names are Chinese asparagus, wild asparagus and lesser asparagus.
The wild asparagus is endemic to Western Europe, has a different genetic profile, and tastes differently from garden asparagus. It has a more natural taste as it lacks both the high sugar content and antioxidants in the cultivated types. This type of asparagus grows in the wild and tends to be thinner and less productive than the other asparagus varieties.
Wild asparagus has been collected from ancient times, and it is a commonly cultivated plant in the Mediterranean area. The plant's main edible part is its shoots. This plant is considered a viable crop for marginal rural regions because of its frugality. Folk medicine uses it as a diuretic to treat kidney-related disorders. It is usually cooked into various dishes, but it is especially enjoyed with eggs, e.g. omelettes, scrambled or poached eggs.
Asparagus is the most reliable symbol of spring's arrival. Some varieties like Apollo beat the other asparagus varieties and grow their shoots much earlier. These large, crisp, early bloomers grow to be dark green with purple tips. Apollo asparagus type is also known for its elegant appearance, with smooth, cylindrical, slightly tapering spears and tight tips. They grow well in warm and cool climates and are resistant to asparagus rust and other diseases. Apollo asparagus tend to have thicker spears that are great for freezing so that you can enjoy them year-round
The Atlas asparagus variety grows best in hot climates, but – as long as it receives six hours of sunlight every day – it also tolerates hard frost and drought. Atlas asparagus are very sturdy, dark green with a purple tinge on their tips. This type of asparagus is resistant to disease.
All asparagus varieties can be prepared and served in the same ways — roasted, baked, sautéed, shaved in salads and many more. We've got just the ideas and recipes that will help you make the most of this spring vegetable. Whether you prefer green, white, purple, thick or thin varieties, you'll want to check out these seven tasty ways to cook asparagus.
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