ASPARAGUS, a numerous genus of plants of the lily family (Liliaceae), comprising upwards of 120 species, widely distributed in the temperate and warmer parts of the Old World. They are erect or climbing, extensively branching and sometimes more or less woody plants, rising from cord-like, thickened or tuberous rootstocks (Rhizomes). The leaves are reduced to minute scales bearing in their axils tufts of green, needle-like or flattened branches (cladodes or cladophyls), which perform the function of leaves. Some species climb or scramble, in which they are aided by the development of the scale-leaves into spines. The flowers are small, whitish and pendulous; the fruit is a berry. Several climbing species are grown as house plants and in green houses for their ornamental foliage. The so-called asparagus-fern (A. plumosus), native to South Africa, with numerous horticul tural varieties, is an especially elegant species, highly prized for its delicate, feathery branches. The vine-like smilax of the florists (A. asparagoides), with stiffish, shining, many-veined "leaves" (cladodes), is likewise a native of South Africa.
Garden Asparagus.—Economically the most valuable species is the common vegetable (A. officinale), widely grown for food. The plant is a native of the north temperate zone of the Old World, grows wild on coasts and sandy areas in the south of England ; and on the steppes of Russia it is so abundant that it is eaten by cattle like grass. It has .scaped from cultivation and become extensively naturalized in North America, especially around salt marshes from New Brunswick to Virginia, sparingly along roadsides and in fields in the interior, and also on the Pacific coast. Since Greek and Roman times the young shoots have been in high repute as a culinary vegetable.
Asparagus is grown extensively in private gardens as well as for the market. It prefers a loose, light, deep, sandy soil ; the depth should be 3 ft., the soil well trenched, and all surplus water drained away. A quantity of well-rotted dung should be laid in the bottom of the trench, and another top-dressing of manure should be dug in preparatory to planting or sowing. If properly treated, asparagus beds will continue to bear well for several years. Most generally the tender shoots are eaten fresh but large quantities are canned or otherwise preserved. A process has been developed whereby the soft pulp of the asparagus stalk is separated from the fibre, forming a thick paste which is preserved by canning. The asparagus grown at Argenteuil, near Paris, is noted for its size and quality. Production of asparagus in the United States is about 125,00o tons annually (122,00o in California and New Jersey are the leading States.