Is Asparagus Sparrow-grass?
In England, we hear much these days about the decline in the consumption of seasonal produce. In Germany, seasonal consumption is still very much the norm, and of all the items of seasonal produce, it is asparagus that receives the greatest attention and enthusiasm. Asparagus in Germany is big business. Spargelzeit (asparagus season) lasts from April until Midsummer Day, June 24, when the season is 'officially' over. Every restaurant and cafe in the country, so it seems, boasts of its asparagus dishes and chalks up its offerings on boards. Some towns even crown an 'asparagus queen' during their annual festivals to celebrate the harvest. Whereas in Britain we are used to small, slender bright green asparagus, in Germany, and other European countries, asparagus is much larger and almost invariably white in colour, with a more intense flavour.
The word asparagus derives from ancient Greek, Latin and Persian. Greek asparagos originated from the Persian asparag, meaning 'sprout' or 'shoot'. In English, the plant was once known as sperage – from the medieval Latin sparagus – the common name in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Around 1600, the influence of herbalists and horticultural writers made asparagus familiar, and the shortened form 'sparagus at length displaced 'sperage', but by 1650 was itself corrupted to sparagrass, which in turn became sparrow-grass. Botanists still wrote 'asparagus', but the Oxford English Dictionary quotes the Scottish natural historian John Walker as having written in 1791 that, 'Sparrow-grass is so general that asparagus has an air of stiffness and pedantry.' During the 19th century, 'asparagus' returned to literary and educated use, leaving 'sparrow-grass' as a vernacular form in use by the less educated.
Incidentally, the Roman biographer Suetonius wrote that the emperor Augustus had a favourite expression: 'faster than boiling asparagus' to denote something exceptionally speedy.