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Asparagus officinalis L. 1753
pronounced: as-PAH-uh-guss off-ick-in-AH-liss
(Asparagaceae – the asparagus family)
common names: Garden Asparagus, Asparagus
Asparagus is from the Greek ασφαραγος (aspharagos), the ancient Greek name for this plant; officinalis is from the Latin officina, a workshop, laboratory, the name given to the monastic dispensary, this species being used medicinally. The plant has been both cultivated and harvested from the wild for thousands of years: it was depicted in Egyptian tombs dating from 3000 BC, and was probably cultivated in ancient Rome.
Garden asparagus is an herbaceous perennial that grows to about 150 cm tall, and has stout stems with much-branched feathery foliage. What appear to be leaves are in fact needle-like cladodes in the axils of scale leaves. The root system is adventitious. Asparagus is dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants, but bisexual flowers are occasionally produced. The flowers are campanulate, greenish white to yellowish, 4.5 – 6.5 mm long, with 6 tepals partially fused together at the base. They are produced singly, or in small clusters of 2 or 3, in the junctions of the branchlets. The fruit, poisonous to humans, is a small red berry up to 1 cm in diameter.
The part of the plant eaten is the young tender shoots: once the buds start to open (known as ‘ferning out’), the stems rapidly become woody. The shoots are prepared a number of ways in various countries, typically as an appetizer or as a vegetable side-dish. It is usually boiled or steamed, and served with melted butter, olive oil, Hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, or Parmesan cheese. Tall, narrow special cooking pots are often used, so that the tips can stay out of the water and be gently steamed. In Asian cuisine, it is often stir-fried with chicken, prawns or beef. It may also be quickly grilled over charcoal or wood embers, or used as an ingredient in soups and stews. It is sometimes used, raw, as a salad ingredient.
Asparagus is grown and sold in two forms, green and white. The green stems are grown naturally. The white stems are produced by ‘earthing up' the stems with soil as they grow, so that they are never exposed to the sun, and so no photosynthesis occurs, and the shoots remain white. This form is less bitter, much more tender, and much more expensive!
Improvements in transport have made asparagus much less of a delicacy than it used to be, as it can now be imported from various parts of the world, and be available in the shops for a much greater part of the year.
Purple varieties are now appearing on the market, with a higher sugar level and a lower level of fibre than the white or green. Tinned asparagus has been available for many years, and bottled asparagus, pickled or ‘marinated’ can also be bought.
Asparagus is quite a strong diuretic, and is used in the treatment of some urinary problems such as cystitis. It is also used in the treatment of rheumatic conditions, and as a mild laxative and sedative. It contains the antioxidant glutathione, used to boost the immune system, reduce inflammation and maintain the health of the liver.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken in Nelly Bay 2016
Page last updated 918th July 2018