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The origins of asparagus growing in the Evesham area

In November 2012 we had an email from Nigel Smith who is Chairman of the British Asparagus Festival and also landlord of The Fleece Inn. He asked some quite tricky questions:

  • How long has asparagus been grown in the area?
  • How did it start?
  • Who noticed that the soil would be good for this crop?
  • Did it start out wild and was then cultivated?
  • Who led the cultivation?

There is some information about asparagus growing in Terry Sparrow's book Digging for a Living. So we approached Terry and this is what he has been able to tell us.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture Bulletin (no. 60, dated December 1932), asparagus was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but was not introduced to England until the 16th century, when it was probably brought from Holland. The diarist Samuel Pepys recorded that he bought a 'hundred of sparrow-grass' in Fenchurch Street, London in 1667.

It was evidently grown in Evesham as early as 1768. Arthur Young, secretary of the Board of Agriculture, visited the town during that year and his book A Six Months Tour of the North of England, published in 1771, tells us that asparagus was carried from Evesham to Bath and Bristol.

A letter from an Evesham writer to the Morning Chronicle newspaper, 30 August 1782, also mentions asparagus sent from the town to Bath and Bristol.

W Pitt in his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Worcester (1813) saw several flats of asparagus in the fields. (A flat in this context refers to a large stretch of level ground.)

In 1830 the Royal Horticultural Society awarded a medal to Anthony New for his fine specimens of asparagus exhibited at shows of the Vale of Evesham Society in this and the previous year. (See Gaut: A History of Worcs Agriculture, page 294).

However, all references to Evesham asparagus during the late 18th and early 19th centuries appear to relate to the town. There is no suggestion that it was cultivated so long ago in any of the surrounding villages.

But by 1866, and possibly earlier, it seems that the crop was grown in Badsey, although it is practically certain that it would have been on a very small scale, as market gardening in the village was then in its infancy. In 1866 the Hereford Journal advertised for sale: 'Asparagus roots, yearling and two years old, at one shilling per hundred. Apply to J Jones, Badsey, Evesham'.

With the rapid expansion of the market gardening industry in Badsey and other neighbouring villages during the last quarter of the 19th century, so too did the acreage of asparagus increase.

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A Roman floor mosaic showing two rounds of asparagus.
A Roman floor mosaic showing two rounds of asparagus.       Photo: Richard Phillips.