By: Amy Grant
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We all know that some plants have male reproductive organs and some have female and some have both. How about asparagus? Are there really male or female asparagus? If so, what’s the difference between male and female asparagus? Keep reading to get the scoop on male vs. female asparagus.
So are there male and female asparagus plants? There isn’t an obvious asparagus sex determination is there? Yes, there are male and female asparagus plants and actually there are some signs as to which sex the asparagus might be.
Asparagus is dioecious, which means there are both male and female plants. Female asparagus produces seeds that look like little red berries. Male plants produce thicker, larger spears than females. The flowers on male plants are also larger and longer than those on females. Male blooms have 6 stamens and one small useless pistil, while female blooms have 6 small nonfunctional pistils and a well-developed, three-lobed stamen.
In the battle of the sexes, is there a difference between male and female asparagus? Since female asparagus produce seed, they expend quite a bit of energy on that production, so while the female produces more spears, they are significantly smaller than their male counterparts. Also, as the seeds drop from the female, new seedlings are sprouted which causes overcrowding in the bed.
In this one case, male asparagus seems to have a benefit over female. In fact, male asparagus is favored so much more that there are now new hybridized male asparagus plants that produce larger yields. Some of these include Jersey Giant, Jersey King, and Jersey Knight. If you want the largest spears, these are your best options. These newer hybrids also have the added benefit of being cold tolerant and resistant to rust and fusarium.
If you have planted an older variety or are unsure what sex your crowns are, wait until they flower to make a distinction. Then if you want, you can remove the less productive female asparagus and replace it with more productive male crowns.
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Asparagus plants, both male and female, produce flowers in the early summer after the shoots have turned into tall stalks and leafed-out. On female plants, and occasionally males, the flowers develop into small, red seed-pods, resembling berries. You can use the seeds gathered from these pods for growing more asparagus plants, or you can add sprigs of the red berries to flower arrangements as an attractive background.
Male and female reproductive parts in plants are often found together in the same flower or on separate flowers on the same plant. Asparagus is different, being dioecious, meaning it has completely separate male and female plants, each with their own reproductive flower types and growth habits.
Male and female asparagus plants produce similar flowers, both being small, greenish-white to yellow in color, bell-shaped, and occurring singly or in clusters of two or three at leaf junctions. However, if you look closely, there are differences.
Male flowers have six stamens surrounding a single, non-functional pistil, while female flowers have six infertile pistils and a single, three-sectioned stamen. Male plants also produce flowers which are more elongated than their female counterpart.
Male asparagus plants are more productive from the culinary perspective where the aim is an abundance of large, succulent, edible shoots in spring. Female plants also produce shoots, but they are smaller and not as good to eat, because the plants save their energy for making seeds later in the season. Some popular all-male hybrid cultivars include:
It is generally only the female plants which have flowers turning into bright-red berries of .25 to .4 inches (6 to 10mm) diameter at the end of summer. However, male plants can produce hermaphroditic flowers and viable seeds on occasion, as well.
Flowers are one method plants use for reproduction, another being vegetative propagation. Asparagus plants propagate in both ways: by producing seeds from flowers and by sprouting new plants underground from their large, perennial root system.
Asparagus crowns are the root systems of asparagus plants which have been grown-out for one or two seasons in a plant nursery starting from seed. When planting from crowns, the asparagus bed starts out one year closer to producing edible shoots in the third year. When planted from seed, it takes an additional year to reach this point.
Seeds collected from asparagus plants can be started in the greenhouse in early spring. Sow seeds ½ inch ((1.3cm) deep and approximately 2 inches (5cm) apart in well-drained potting soil. Keep moist in a sunny location and allow four weeks for germination. Let plants grow a minimum of three months after germination before transplanting to the garden.
It takes patience to start your asparagus patch from seed, but there are advantages to gain from the extra wait. Seed-grown plants don't suffer from transplant trauma like nursery-grown roots, and you can buy a whole packet of seed for the same price you'll pay for one asparagus crown. Most seed-grown asparagus plants eventually out-produce those started from roots.
In northern climates, start seedlings indoors in late February or early March. Sow single seeds in newspaper pots, place the pots in a sunny window, and use bottom heat to maintain the temperature of the mix in the pots at 77ºF. When the seeds sprout, lower the temperature to 60 to 70ºF. Once the danger of frost passes, plant the seedlings (which should be about 1 foot tall) 2 to 3 inches deep in a nursery bed.
When 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.
Unless you have asparagus beds with lots of varieties its unusual to be able to taste more than one or two different varieties head to head. Our Asparabuddie of Hargreaves Plants who are major suppliers of asparagus crowns to growers and have an extensive testing program sent us six asparagus varieties to compare. Here is what we found in a very unscientific blind testing.
Bearing in mind that all of them were delicious and far exceeded the flavour of shop bought these were the comments on each. Needless to say we didn't all agree!
Ariane - very nice, good flavour
Millenium - very nice chunky, a bit bitter raw
Mondeo - Incredibly tender, more stringy end, more delicate, more subtle flavour, bland
Pacific 2000 - Very tender, great flavour, similar to Mondeo for flavour, slightly bitter raw
Pacific Purple - bit watery, not as much flavour, more woody, bland
Stewarts Purple - not as watery as Pacific Purple, one of the nicest, very sweet
Tesco's - quite nice, slightly mushy
Note where comparisons were made the names of the varieties were not used but we worked it out from the numbers we gave each one.
All in all we thought that Stewart Pacific was very very good and all the greens were amazing and beat Tesco's offering hands down. We were a bit underwhelmed by Pacific Purple.
Here are tips for planting and harvesting the tastiest asparagus.
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It used to be nobody cared when they bit into a tasty spear of asparagus whether it was a she or a he. In fact, most people didn’t even know there was a difference. Gardeners happily planted popular open-pollinating varieties, such as “Martha Washington” and “Mary Washington,” and were pleased with the results three years later when they started harvesting. But now, having stepped out of the Garden of Eden, gardeners have become aware that mixing the two sexes, which is what Washington varieties were, is not the best way to produce the most abundant asparagus crop.
And sorry ladies, but in this case, the male hybrid of the species really does have the edge, according to researchers at Rutgers University who started a program in the 1980s to improve the performance of asparagus using a more productive male hybrid plant. The gentlemen of the species actually produce more and slenderer spears, while the ladies tend to be (how shall we put it) more on the pleasingly plump side.
The female plants waste a lot of time and use a lot of energy producing seed, which can be a hassle for gardeners when tiny sprouts begin shooting up like weeds all around the asparagus patch. It seems the guys produce a yield of spears that is 20 to 30 percent higher than the females. Many garden experts are now recommending Jersey varieties such as “Jersey Supreme,” “Jersey Giant,” and “Jersey Knight”—all products of the Rutgers University research that was done in, where else, New Jersey.
Note, however, that these Jersey male hybrids aren’t really all male after all. They are 93 percent male and 7 percent female.
As for the nutritive value of male vs. female asparagus, researchers in China have found male spears are higher in amino acid, carotenoid, iron, and zinc, while the female spears have higher fiber content, suggesting the males are of higher quality. The females, however, have higher soluble sugar, calcium, and fat content than the males.
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Asparagus officinalis (the scientific name) is part of the Lily family.
It has a tuberous root system that lives for many years sending up fresh tasty and edible shoots each spring which grow into tall fern like plants that die back in the autumn.
The terms asparagus plants and asparagus crowns are used interchangeably but the plant actually comprises a crown, which is a collection of rhizomes and lateral roots, a fern which grows above ground and a wider spread of roots.The part of the plant that is eaten is the young shoots that if allowed to grow on form the stalk of the asparagus fern. The young shoots are tender and have a tight pencil like shape with a "tip". As the tips start to open out the stems get tougher, stronger ready to support the weight of the ferns. This is why you should cut asparagus before the tips start to unfurl.
Asparagus plants are either male or female. The females produce berries and producing those berries uses up some of their energy. As a result you are likely to get better crops with the male plants. Some varieties have been bred to produce primarily male plants whilst others produce both. If you grow from seed you can weed out the females when you first see them produce berries.Good quality hybrid crowns bought for planting will typically be predominantly male.
As with most plants there are a range of varieties to choose from.
Fully Grown Asparagus Fern
Asparagus Crowns Ready for Planting
After you have cut and enjoyed your asparagus, there are a few steps left to take. Because this is a perennial vegetable, you can’t simply remove the plant.
Instead, you will want to leave any remaining asparagus ferns in your vegetable garden. This is a crucial step so that the roots still receive nutrients which makes for a better crop the following year.
Wait until fall when the foliage naturally dies off and then you can cut everything back. You also want to continue placing a layer of compost or manure on top of the asparagus bed, as well as fresh mulch to prevent weeds from growing.
Sometimes the asparagus stalks at local markets are as thin as pencils other times they’re fat and meaty. Is thickness an indication of maturity? And does size affect taste?
Asparagus spears are the plant shoots of an underground crown that can produce for up to 20 years. The thickness of a spear has nothing to do with its age—that is, a thin spear will not mature into a thicker spear. Rather, diameter is determined by two factors: the age of the entire plant (younger crowns produce more slender stalks) and its variety.
So, which size is preferable? We snapped off the woody bottoms of fat and skinny spears and tasted them side by side, both steamed and tossed with olive oil and salt. While both types tasted equally sweet, nutty, and grassy, we expected the delicate-looking thin spears to be more tender. To our surprise, the thicker spears actually had the better texture (if only by a hair). The reason? The vegetable’s fiber is slightly more concentrated in thinner spears.
Since thick and thin spears are both good bets, choose the size that best suits your cooking method. Thicker stalks are better for broiling and roasting because they will stand up to the intense dry heat that would quickly shrivel skinnier spears. We also like thicker spears for grilling since they are easier to manipulate. Quick-cooking thinner spears are good candidates for steaming and stir-frying.