The Crown Crop
The most resounding proclamation of spring comes from the asparagus spear, emerging from the soil and standing straight up to greet the morning light. Once grown in monasteries for medicine, enjoyed by kings and queens, and celebrated by entire cultures, asparagus does not grow unnoticed.
Asparagus spears are mostly planted from “crowns” which are long tangled bundles of roots that almost resemble matted hair after a day at the beach. Spears can be harvested from crowns that are at least three years old and once these crowns are planted, they can be productive for decades if taken care of properly.
When temperatures at night begin to linger in the mid 60s, the crowns will use stored energy to produce spears the shoot up toward the sky to capture some much-needed sunshine. The spears have the ability grow as fast as one inch per hour, literally allowing for an interested or hungry producer to watch them grow.
The emergence of asparagus from the soil has long been an event worth celebrating, which is exactly what we have been doing for more than 4000 years. Originally this herbaceous, perennial plant was found growing throughout Europe. It was brought to North America in the later part of the seventeenth century by European settlers as it was thought to be a crop that might do well in our climate. Some two-hundred years after its arrival to North America, it emerged as a cash crop in South Carolina, grown to supply high-end restaurants and hotels in the Northeast. Asparagus production primarily took place in the Charleston area, with some of the best green shoots coming from a farm in Mt. Pleasant. This demand was filled by South Carolina’s early spring production for nearly one-hundred years, as Charleston asparagus developed a reputation of its own for being the best—the high prices per serving reflected the quality and flavor.
The train cars that were once filled with neatly bundled, Charleston-grown asparagus spears began to slow down in the second half of the twentieth century, mostly due to the increased production of asparagus in New Jersey and Delaware.
However, asparagus continues to grow in South Carolina and can be seen pushing aside a mound of dirt to reach toward the sky, inviting us all to enjoy the season.
- by Erin Byers Murray
- by Amber Chase