JACOBSBURG - Long, mounded rows of soil stretch across a grassy, sloped field. On a day when the forsythia just opened up, it may look like the Thorntons are getting ready to plant. Nope, the planting has already been done. They grow asparagus, which is a perennial, and, quiet as it looks, the crop is busy working its way toward the tops of those mounds.
The growth process began years ago, in fact. Asparagus "crowns" have a center surrounded by small roots. These are placed about two feet apart under a foot of soil. For the next two years, the plant will settle itself, spreading roots horizontally underground and pushing shoots toward the sky. Only after the plant is three or four years old, and the shoots are about the diameter of an average index finger, will the Thorntons harvest it.
Myra Thornton and husband Tom grow "Certified Naturally Grown" asparagus, rhubarb and red raspberries using organic methods and practices. She explains that first year asparagus comes up on skinny, weedy stalks that develop tops like feathery asparagus ferns. The shoots are bigger the second year - about the diameter of a #2 pencil - but they let the plant mature at least one more year before harvesting. Most of the asparagus in the stores and at markets is probably from middle aged plants, 6 or 7 years old. Asparagus plants are generally harvested for up to 15 years but have been known to live and produce to 30 years.
Asparagus has been a favorite spring vegetable for 5,000 years. The Romans were the first to freeze it to enjoy later. The spears are packed with Vitamins K and C, several B vitamins, potassium, folate and special amino acids to aid digestion, build healthy cells, ease inflammation and fight cancer.
White asparagus is more tender and delicate, but is actually the same plant as the green asparagus, covered by soil to stop photosynthesis.
The scales at the tip of the asparagus stalk are the plant’s leaves. This is the most tender and flavorful part of the plant, a particular favorite of Madame de Pompadour.
Asparagus is classified into groups beginning with "extra small," around pencil-sized, to "colossal," about the diameter of a 50-cent piece. Most of the mid-sized spears are cut at 8 or 9 inches in length. The wider, older spears are cut at 4 to 6 inches because the additional length becomes woody. These shorter, fatter spears are also sweeter, according to Myra. As the season gets underway, shoots can grow between 2 and 6 inches per day. The Thornton farm can produce 110 pounds per day during the high season, and all asparagus, even commercially produced, is cut by hand.
It is a good companion plant to tomatoes. Tomato plants naturally repel asparagus beetles, and asparagus plants repel some root nematodes that affect tomato plants.
After the 10-week season is over the Thorntons allow the asparagus to continue growing, and they will top 10 feet with the fern-like heads. Myra says they turn golden in the fall and are later chopped down with a weeder machine.
A member of the Lily family, of the nearly 300 types of asparagus recorded, only 20 are edible, and virtually the only commercially grown and most popular variety is Asparagus officionalis. In addition, all asparagus - with the exception of a genetically modified purple variety - is green. White asparagus is also Asparagus officionalis, but the new shoots are immediately covered with soil to stop photosynthesis, which produces green chlorophyll. Another type, Asparagus racemosus, from India and the Himalayans, has been used as a medicinal plant for centuries in Ayurvedic practice.
There is evidence that the Egyptians grew asparagus as early as 3000 BC. The Greeks and Romans also prized the vegetable for both its flavor and health benefits, and the name, which is Latin, is a derivative from a Persian word for "shoot" or "sprout." One of the earliest surviving cookbooks, from the third century, includes an asparagus recipe. It wasn't until the 15th century that Western Europe began taking note and using asparagus. It arrived in the United States around 1850.
Reading varied lists of asparagus' health benefits, one might think that it's a super food that can treat gout, fatigue, constipation, kidney stones, acne, hypertension, cancer and arthritis, and act as a diuretic, build healthy cell structure, reduce the risk of birth defects and cure hangovers. There is some truth in all of this.
A substance in asparagus has been found to dissolve uric acid (a problem with gout) and an amino acid called asparagine promotes the evacuation of fluids and salts that increase risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. The vegetable's high fiber content cleans the digestive system.
Asparagus has a high Vitamin C content that contributes to the development of collagen for healthy cells and skin. It also contains a potent antioxidant called glutathione, which with asparagus' Vitamin A, potassium and folate, renders strong anti-aging properties and fights cancer causing free radicals.
Asparagus is an excellent source of potassium, which neutralizes sodium, thus reducing the risk of hypertension. Asparagus has one of the highest contents of Vitamin K, with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. The high levels of B vitamins in asparagus have been shown to regulate both blood pressure and blood sugar, while a combination of folate and B12 contributes to improved cognitive ability and regulation of embryonic nerve cell development for healthy babies.
Recent studies have shown asparagus to contain a select group of phytonutrients called saponins that fight inflammation and cancer and control blood pressure, blood sugar and fat content in the blood. Asparagus is also on the short list of foods with inulin, a special type of carbohydrate that is not digested in the small intestine, but is an excellent food source for "good bacteria" in the large intestine, which, when thriving, lower the risk of colon cancer and allergies and help the body absorb nutrients more efficiently.
A sulfuric compound creates a side effect which most people experience, an odor in the urine. This is a harmless reaction of metabolization, and while it occurs in the majority of humans, only around 40 percent can actually detect the odor.
And, yes, recent studies in Asia have found that asparagus promotes production of an enzyme that breaks down alcohol, so it may even be an effective treatment for hangovers.
While Myra acknowledges that she is not a doctor, she and people she knows have experienced remarkable results for both cancer and fibromyalgia by using a puree of fresh, organic asparagus in 8 ounces of water twice every day.
Asparagus can be lightly steamed or sauteed (under two minutes), roasted or grilled. An upright steamer is best, Myra says, because the tops are most tender and cook faster than the heavier stems. Even the water is healthy after cooking, since nutrients leach in during the steaming process. Add the water to soups, vegetable juices or to a light dressing for vegetables or salads.
Asparagus is highly perishable, though, and should be used within two days of purchase for optimum health benefits. It is possible to freeze uncooked asparagus using designated freezer bags to keep moisture and air out.
The Thorntons will be available to answer questions about their crop while hosting the fifth "Experience Asparagus Festival" on Saturday, April 27 from 1 to 5 p.m. at their farm, 50222 Cook Rd. in Jacobsburg, off of Belmont County Rd. 5. There will be activities, cookbooks and asparagus-based dishes and snacks for the whole family from more than 25 vendors. The event is free and open to the public and is a fundraiser for the Ohio Valley Farmers Market. For more information call (740) 686-2025, or see the Ohio Valley Farmers Market page on Facebook.