Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Purple asparagus

I bought and planted some seeds of purple asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) before we moved here.  I think I got about 10 seeds in all, which is not many but at that time purple asparagus could only be bought from one place so I didn't have a great deal of choice if I wanted to grow it.

The seeds were small, black and unremarkable.  I soaked them in water overnight and planted them, then waited for something to happen.  From those seeds only 3 germinated, it was very exciting.  At that time I knew of no one who had ever grown asparagus from seed so was pretty much on my own to figure how to grow them.  I have grown many things over the years which people have told me are impossible to grow, so this didn't daunt me.

Out of those 3 tiny seedlings grew, then slugs or snails killed 2 of them one night.  After noticing the loss I quickly put crushed eggshell all around the last survivor to help protect it.  That one seedling was not killed but did sustain some snail damage from time to time and needed the crushed egg shell placed around it pretty often.

This one tiny seedling grew slowly, it died down each winter as asparagus must, and grew back larger each Spring.  Each Spring the snails would hammer it and I would protect it with egg shells.

Then it was dug up and moved here with us.  Considering that we moved in the height of summer the plant did not enjoy this move and its growth was slowed but it did not die.  I planted it into the soil at the edge of the vegetable garden near the 'fence'.  Asparagus dies each winter and sprouts again each spring.  I am told it takes 3 years from seed to get a crop, but this plant had such a difficult start that it took a bit longer.
Purple asparagus spear emerging in early spring
Asparagus plants are either male or female.  Female asparagus tends to be a bit thinner than the male plants as they put energy into seeds and fruit, male plants grow thick and fat spears.  Most people kill off the female plants and only grow the male ones.  I had no idea if this plant was a male or a female, I didn't particularly care as I planned on keeping it regardless.

Purple asparagus spear
Last year (or the year before, I can't remember) this plant flowered for the first time, it is a female plant.  It grew a handful of red berries, most of which were eaten by birds and the seeds deposited who knows where.  I kept some berries and extracted the seeds.  I am yet to grow them, if I do they will most likely not grow true to type as many wild asparagus plants grow here and would have donated pollen to my plant.


What purple asparagus looks like

One question that I had when buying purple asparagus seed is what the plants would look like.  After searching the internet I found many pictures of purple asparagus spears, which looked amazing, but no pictures of the plant once the spears matured.  I wondered if they stayed purple or if they grew green like normal asparagus.

As it turns out, the spears are nice deep purple, then they turn green as the fronds emerge more.  The fronds of purple asparagus look much like regular asparagus, green and fluffy and beautiful.

While I am disappointed that it is not purple for its entire life it is still a beautiful plant.  Tiny birds like to hide in the fronds, some of them make nests in some of the other green asparagus plants that grow here and I hope that they decide to nest in the purple one some day too.
Purple asparagus starting to frond up, note the immature female flowers

What purple asparagus tastes like

Home grown asparagus, like many home grown vegetables, tastes far superior to store bought asparagus.  This is probably due to the freshness, it can be picked minutes before being eaten instead of being picked weeks earlier and stored/transported/stored again before being eaten.  We have a lot of green asparagus growing here, most of it is from seed that birds have kindly deposited under apple trees, along fence lines, and under electrical wires.  While it often grows in unsuitable places this does not stop it from being delicious.

Strangely I have only eaten purple asparagus a few times over these years.  I like this plant so find it difficult to eat it, I would hate to eat too many spears and leave the plant depleted of energy.  I find that it tastes much like the green asparagus that is growing on this property, only sweeter.  If you like fresh asparagus you will love purple asparagus.

I find it disappointing that I can not buy this in the shops as it is nicer than the green type.  Hopefully one day someone will remedy this and grow purple asparagus commercially.  Unfortunately that someone wont be me.  Due to health issues any form of large scale farming is not in my future.

One can cover the spears as they grow to produce white asparagus, these white spear are more tender and sweeter again. 
Purple asparagus, each frond gets green as it grows


Why grow asparagus from seed

Most people think asparagus can not be grown from seed.  I have even had people try to argue with me over this point.  The fact that asparagus are flowering plants that produces seed, and that I have planted seeds and grown asparagus from those seeds, seems almost to be moot points as they have their minds already made up and no amount of logic and evidence will convince them otherwise.

Very few people grow asparagus from seed due to the time it takes to obtain a crop.  I can understand that, it takes a few years to get a large enough plant and by then you may be too attached to it to be able to eat much of it.  Asparagus is a long lived perennial so the effort will be payed off by years of asparagus crops.  You need to be aware that growing from seed has disadvantages, but there are a few reasons that may make you consider growing asparagus from seed.

Asparagus can accumulate virus load and not grow as well.  There are currently no certified virus free sellers in Australia so growing from seed to remove the virus load is currently the only way around this.  Virus load is probably not a huge problem for asparagus around here though. 

Growing from seed would also ensure an amount of genetic diversity which, assuming that you grew several seeds, would make your crop a bit better able to cope with problems that arise. Some seed grown plants will out perform others in your garden even if they came from the same parent.

Some varieties are not for sale as plants anywhere and only available as seed.  You will not be able to grow these unless you grow from seed.  Some of these are excellent varieties and I don't know why they are rare, others are rare because they are not all that great.

I grew purple asparagus from seed as I could not find crowns or plants.  Some places sell purple asparagus plants now.  To be honest I would not bother to grow asparagus from seed if plants or crowns are available.  That being said I would NOT buy tiny seedlings in a punnet though, growing from seed would result in healthier plants than buying these stunted plants that have grown in less than ideal conditions and not being repotted for who knows how long.


Where to get purple asparagus

If you want to eat purple asparagus you will have to grow it yourself.  A few places sell seeds and plants these days.  I may grow some of the seeds from my plant, if any of them are purple I may offer crowns or plants on my for sale page.  If you are keen to grow out some of my seed I may be able to send you some but be aware that it may not grow true to type.

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