Asparagus is believed to be native to the east Mediterranean and the Middle East. It thrives along sandy riverbanks, shores of lakes and wet, salty coastal areas. It is very salt tolerant. Today it grows “wild” across many of the areas around the world where it is grown for food. This includes Europe, Russian, and North America. (Boswell, 1949)
Asparagus grows into a tall upright bush. Flowers are small, with two yellowish-green rings of petal-like tepals. Most fruit bearing plants bear bisexual flowers or plants (having both male and female reproductive parts), but asparagus is dioecious, having male and female flowers occurring on different plants. Botanists today are using asparagus to learn more about mechanisms of sex determination and the genes that control floral development. Pollen is carried from male plants to female plants by insects. If female flowers are pollinated, they produce bright red berries (See photo), which are dispersed by birds. (Rhodes, 2005; Park, 2004).
Records of human use of asparagus date back to the beginning of records. Ancient Egyptian paintings depict cultivation. Early Greek and Roman records detail growing instructions and medicinal uses. Greeks believed the plant could cure everything from toothaches to heart ailments. (California Asparagus Commission, 2005; Trowbridge, 2005; Rangarajan, 2005) The Roman emperors permanently employed people to collect asparagus from the wild and the upper class brought it with them as they conquered new lands (Boswell 1949; Austparagus, 2005). In the 1600s King Louis XIV of France ordered special greenhouses built for asparagus (Stradley, 2004). His lover, Madam de Pompadour, is said to have served asparagus to increase sexual vigor (Austparagus, 2005). Asparagus was reputed to be an aphrodisiac based on the "Law of Similarity", where the shape of an object dictates its properties (Austparagus, 2005). Then Europeans took asparagus worldwide as they settled in new lands.
Today Aparagus is valued economically as a food source. It is high in folacin, which as been shown to aid in blood cell formation, growth, and prevention of liver disease and neural tube defects. It is also a recognized diuretic and laxative. (Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board, 2000)
Author: Heather Fara, University of Florida. Send comments or corrections
Map: Red area indicates the approximate origin of garden Asparagus. This species has been cultivated for so long and excaped so frequently around the world, the true origin may be obscured. Map created by Heather Fara, University of Florida.
Photos: (a) Young shoots, www.gardeners.com (b) Flower detail by Gerald D.Carr, Oregon State University. (c) Hugh Wilson, TAMU Herbarium, Texas A&M University.
Austparagus (2005) Need answers to all your asparagus questions? Austparagus Online. Version: 6 Jan 2006. www.austparagus.com
Boswell (1949) Green Gifts from the Mediterranean. National Geographic 96(2).
California Asparagus Commission (2005) Consumer information. Version: 12 Oct 2005 www.calasparagus.com
Carr (2005) Asparagaceae. Version: 11 Nov 2005. www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/carr/phylo_asparag
Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board (2000) Asparagus online. Version: 30 July 2005. www.asparagus.org
Park et al. (2004) Two GLOBOSA-Like Genes are Expressed in Second and Third Whorls of Homochlamydeous Flowers in Asparagus officinalis L. Plant and Cell Physiology 45(3):325-332.
Rangarajan (2005) Asparagus. Department of Horticulture, Cornell University Version: 9 Oct 2005. www.hort.cornell.edu
Rhodes (2005) Asparagus-Hort410-vegetable crops. Version: 10 Nov 2005. www.hort.purdue.edu/rhodcv/hort410/aspara
Stradley (2004) Linda's Culinary Dictionary. What's Cooking America. whatscookingamerica.net/Glossary/A.htm
Trowbridge (2005) Asparagus, part 1: ancient and prized by kings. About.com Version: 10 Nov 2005. homecooking.about.com