Nothing says spring like fresh asparagus.

The flowering perennial is an interesting and low-calorie, high-nutrient spring vegetable, says University of Missouri Extension nutrition specialist Susan Mills-Gray.

Asparagus is a good source of folic acid and vitamins C and B-6. Nutrients in asparagus have been found to lower the risk of heart disease, dementia and neural tube defects; reduce certain types of cancer; protect eye and skin health; help in bone formation and blood clotting; and maintain healthy blood pressure. Asparagus serves as a food source for the good bacteria in the large intestine. It is known as a natural remedy that helps relieve indigestion and acts as a mild laxative and sedative.

Despite all of the benefits, asparagus has its downsides. It is high in purine, which increases the risk of gout and kidney stones. It also is high in sulfur, which gives urine an unpleasant smell. The insulin in the asparagus can produce intestinal gas.

The different colors of asparagus vary in flavor and nutrients. White asparagus is grown without sunlight so it doesn’t develop chlorophyll and is lower in nutrients, Mills-Gray says. Purple asparagus is sweeter. Its color is created by health-promoting antioxidant properties.

When you buy asparagus, look for firm, crisp, round stalks. The tips should be pointed and tightly closed. It is best to pick spears of similar diameter so they cook uniformly. Store asparagus in a dark part of the refrigerator, wrapped in a moist paper towel, says Mills-Gray. Or you can cut off 1 inch from the end and place upright in an inch of water. Use the cut asparagus within two to three days. If the tips become wilted, soak them briefly in ice-cold water to revive them.

Clean spears under cool, running water. If the tips have sand or dirt in them, dunk them in and out of water. Trim off any tough woody or white ends. Cook quickly until asparagus is tender and crisp. For best results, steam or microwave rather than boil. Asparagus can also be stir-fried, roasted, broiled or grilled.

Asparagus also can be frozen. Wash, trim and sort according to size. Blanch small spears for two minutes, medium spears for three minutes and large spears for four minutes. Remove from boiling water and immediately dip into ice water for two minutes. Drain, put in containers, seal and freeze for up to nine months.