Asparagus, or garden asparagus, scientific name Asparagus officinalis, is a spring vegetable, a flowering perennial plant species in the genus Asparagus.
It was once classified in the lily family, like the related Allium species, onions and garlic, but the Liliaceae have been split and the onion-like plants are now in the family Amaryllidaceae and asparagus in the Asparagaceae. Asparagus officinalis is native to most of Europe, northern Africa and western Asia, and is widely cultivated as a vegetable crop.
Asparagus is a herbaceous, perennial plant growing to 100–150 cm (39–59 in) tall, with stout stems with much-branched, feathery foliage. The “leaves” are in fact needle-like cladodes (modified stems) in the axils of scale leaves; they are 6–32 mm (0.24–1.26 in) long and 1 mm (0.039 in) broad, and clustered four to 15 together, in a rose-like shape. The root system is adventitious and the root type is fasciculated. The flowers are bell-shaped, greenish-white to yellowish, 4.5–6.5 mm (0.18–0.26 in) long, with six tepals partially fused together at the base; they are produced singly or in clusters of two or three in the junctions of the branchlets. It is usually dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants, but sometimes hermaphrodite flowers are found. The fruit is a small red berry 6–10 mm diameter, which is poisonous to humans.
Plants native to the western coasts of Europe (from northern Spain north to Ireland, Great Britain, and northwest Germany) are treated as Asparagus officinalis subsp. prostratus (Dumort.) Corb., distinguished by its low-growing, often prostrate stems growing to only 30–70 cm (12–28 in) high, and shorter cladodes 2–18 mm (0.079–0.709 in) long. It is treated as a distinct species, Asparagus prostratus Dumort, by some authors.
Asparagus has been used as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavour, diuretic properties, and more. It is pictured as an offering on an Egyptian frieze dating to 3000 BC. In ancient times, it was also known in Syria and in Spain. Greeks and Romans ate it fresh when in season, and dried the vegetable for use in winter; Roman Epicureans even froze it high in the Alps, for the Feast of Epicurus. Emperor Augustus created the “Asparagus Fleet” for hauling the vegetable, and coined the expression “faster than cooking asparagus” for quick action.[Note 1] A recipe for cooking asparagus is in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius’s third-century AD De re coquinaria, Book III.
The ancient Greek physician Galen (prominent among the Romans) mentioned asparagus as a beneficial herb during the second century AD, but after the Roman empire ended, asparagus drew little medieval attention.[Note 2] until al-Nafzawi’s The Perfumed Garden. That piece of writing celebrates its (scientifically unconfirmed) aphrodisiacal power, a supposed virtue that the Indian Ananga Ranga attributes to “special phosphorus elements” that also counteract fatigue. By 1469, asparagus was cultivated in French monasteries. Asparagus appears to have been hardly noticed in England until 1538,[Note 2] and in Germany until 1542.
The finest texture and the strongest and yet most delicate taste is in the tips. The points d’amour (“love tips”) were served as a delicacy to Madame de Pompadour.Asparagus became available to the New World around 1850, in the United States.