Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
Lily Family (Liliaceae)
wild asparagus, asparagus fern, garden asparagus.
Origin and Distribution:
Asparagus is native to coastal regions of Europe and Asia, and was brought to North America by European settlers in the 1700's. It is commonly cultivated in gardens, and often escapes, becoming established in waste places, along roadsides and fencerows. This species is tolerant of drought and salinity.
Asparagus is an herbaceous perennial, well-known for its edible young shoots. Mature plants have a distinctive fern-like appearance, and reproduce by seed.
Asparagus produces a thick mat of fleshy roots that can grow 3 feet deep.
Seedlings and Shoots:
Young shoots (commonly called spears) are green, succulent and tender. Several shoots are produced from previously established rootstocks.
Stems are smooth, green and 4 to 6 feet tall, with many green primary branches. Slender, green, needle-like secondary branches are produced in bundles off the main branches, appearing more like leaves than branches.
Inconspicuous, reduced, scale-like leaves (bracts) occur at the tips of young shoots and at the bases of primary and secondary branches along mature stems. (Note: The bundles of green, needle-like structures along the main branches are actually finer branches).
Asparagus is dioecious, producing male and female flowers on separate plants. Flowers are greenish, bell-shaped, and situated on slender flower stalks in groups of 1 to 3 arising from the leaf bases.
Fruits and Seeds:
Round, bright red berries are produced on female plants, and each berry contains several black seeds.
Young shoots emerge in early spring. The fine, needle-like secondary branches are the main site of photosynthesis, a role typically played by leaves.
Raw young shoots, older stalks, roots and other structures of wild asparagus are reported to be mildly toxic. Contact with young stems can cause skin irritation.
Facts and Folklore:
Asparagus was first cultivated as a food source by the Romans 2000 years ago.
The fresh juice, taken in small doses, is said to act medicinally as a diuretic and laxative. Roots were used by Ancient Chinese herbalists to treat many ailments, such as arthritis and infertility.