Sexing Asparagus

"When the tiny flowers appear, observe them with a magnifying glass. Female flowers have well-developed, three-lobed pistils; male blossoms are larger and longer than female flowers. Weed out all female plants. The following spring, transplant the males to the permanent bed."

— Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening


Dioecious is the word for an organism with separate sexes, asparagus being one of the few such plants. As a woman from a diecious species, I am fascinated by asparagus, if not exactly kin to it.

In the gardening encyclopedia, the Asparagus entry contains the advice: "Select and prepare your asparagus bed with care; this crop will occupy the same spot for 20 years or more."

That's me waking up today where I was seven. My whole schooling and pubescence, unmoving, right there. So here are the little asparagus seedlings we just germinated in the greenhouse; wherever I decide to plant them is where they stay. So put them in view of a sunrise, right?

Apparently growing asparagus from seed leads someday to better plants-- less traumatized by the nursery, more productive. "Growing from seed also allows you to selectively discard female plants and plant an all-male bed," it says; I am startled by this eugenical frankness. Male plants apparently produce more spears because the females expend energy making seed. I leave you, reader in a capitalist reality, pause, to smile or shake your head at that, or feel confused by your reaction to a simple scientific fact.

Big-headed species we are, growing other species in pots. There is a kind of dominance in it that requires humbling; and humbling comes, of course. The deer eat a crop, or in just a few days the squash bugs suck the life out of every vine— we are no more in control, just better at illusions. The tipped-over look of my little plants matches the gestures of a wind-torn tree in Vanatu; it is not a long hopscotch to connect the two, what with the oil burning in the heater for the greenhouse. There is no profession in America free of its damage to the earth.

Every spring I learn again the look of a healthy plant, and more about all the conditions that lead to its health— good soil, good rain. I love my field, and love, to an illogically variant degree, each of the plants on it, almost even the weeds. I'm gonna really love these little asparagus from saved seed. Every planting is another example of plants sharing the nutrients in the soil they are given. The unruly will to thrive which motivates the opening of every leaf. As usual I think too about humans, how we could behave more in pursuit of mutual health than we do, to say the least.

Anyhow, it was neat to have found last fall a female asparagus plant laden with bright red berries, in the random corner where I'd planted her (not a great view of the sunrise over there); to have picked the berries and dried them and kept their black seeds in a packet all winter; and now to see the new green shoots come up in their blocks of potting mix. I won't get to eat their stalks for three more years, but this is asparagus, it stays put. If I'm patient I'll get some eventually.

— L