Asparagus officinalis is a spring vegetable, a flowering perennial plant species in the genus Asparagus. It was once classified in the lily family, like its Allium cousins, 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 ofEurope, northern Africa and western Asia, and is widely cultivated as a vegetable crop.
Asparagus is a herbaceous, perennial plant growing to 100–150 centimetres (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 millimetres (0.24–1.3 in) long and 1 millimetre (0.039 in) broad, and clustered 4–15 together. The root system is adventitious and the root type is fasciculated. The flowers are bell-shaped, greenish-white to yellowish, 4.5–6.5 millimetres (0.18–0.26 in) long, with six tepals partially fused together at the base; they are produced singly or in clusters of 2–3 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.
Only young asparagus shoots are commonly eaten: once the buds start to open (“ferning out”), the shoots quickly turn woody.
Asparagus is low in calories and is very low in sodium. It is a good source of vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and zinc, and a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, rutin, niacin, folic acid, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese and selenium, as well as chromium, a trace mineral that enhances the ability of insulin to transport glucose from the bloodstream into cells. The amino acid asparagine gets its name from asparagus, the asparagus plant being rich in this compound.
The shoots are prepared and served in a number of ways around the world, typically as an appetizer or vegetable side dish. In Asian-style cooking, asparagus is often stir-fried. Cantonese restaurants in the United States often serve asparagus stir-fried with chicken, shrimp, or beef, and also wrapped in bacon. Asparagus may also be quickly grilled over charcoal or hardwood embers. It is also used as an ingredient in some stews and soups. In the French style, it is often boiled or steamed and served with hollandaise sauce, melted butter or olive oil, Parmesan cheese or mayonnaise. Asparagus can also be pickled and stored for several years. Some brands may label shoots prepared this way as “marinated”.