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Asparagus officinalis

  • Family: Asparagus Family – Asparagaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Rootstock creeping, thick, tuberously swollen, short-jointed.
  • Height: 60–150 cm (24–60 in.). Stem many-branched, 2–6 needle-like shoots in whorls.
  • Flower: Perianth regular (actinomorphic), whitish–greenish yellow, 4–6 mm (0.16–0.24 in.) wide, fused, 6-lobed. Male flowers’ perianth narrowly campanulate, female and bisexual flowers almost spherical. Stamens 6. Gynoecium fused, single-styled. Flowers solitary or in pairs–whorls of a few flowers in leaf axils.
  • Leaves: Rudimentary, scale-like. Axillary shoots needle-like, whorled.
  • Fruit: Round, initially green, when ripe orange, 6–10 mm (0.24–0.4 in.) wide berry.
  • Habitat: Yards, roadsides, sand heaps, heaps of earth, gravel pits, waste ground, shores. Ornamental and vegetable, left over from old gardens or an escape and alien species.
  • Flowering time: June–July.

Asparagus grows ferally in southern and western Europe, and it also grows in southern Finland. It can thrive in the same place for up to 20 years. Asparagus is very finely branched and its needle-like parts are in fact branches: the leaves are very small scales that lean against the stem. The structure of shoots varies somewhat according to the gender of the plant: male plants are typically more strongly branched and sturdily built; the female plant on the other hand is more delicate. It often happens however that the same individual is bisexual, and due to involution female and male plants become mixed.

Asparagus has been used for thousands of years and has a solid reputation as a medicinal and otherwise useful plant. Asparagus rhizomes and roots are believed to enhance fertility, alleviate menstrual pains, and increase the production of milk in nursing mothers. These beliefs are not without foundation: the roots contain compounds which affect hormone production. The popular claims that asparagus is an aphrodisiac and that it increases the sex drive may however be based on the outer appearance of the young shoots. One thing that cannot be disputed however is that asparagus is a wonderful treat for the taste buds: leafless shoots that are earthed up in the spring are delicious with nothing more than melted butter. Asparagus also looks wonderful in the garden: it yields a crop for a couple of weeks in the spring, after which it should be allowed to grow undisturbed; the African relatives of our asparagus are much more useful for leaf greens. Asparagus’s red berries also look very decorative, but they are poisonous. The seed contains high amounts of bitter aspargin however, so nobody is likely to ingest more than a few seeds. Birds can however eat as many as they like – thus spreading the seeds which pass through their digestive tract intact.

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