Prota 2: Vegetables/Légumes
Journ. Linn. Soc. 14: 614 (1875).
Asparagopsis flagellaris Kunth (1850), Asparagus pauli-guilelmi Solms-Laub. (1867).
Wild asparagus (En). Asperge sauvage, asperge rampante, piège de la hyène (Fr).
Origin and geographic distribution
Asparagus flagellaris is widespread in tropical Africa. It has been much confused with Asparagus africanus Lam., which occurs in East and southern Africa, but it is not clear whether the latter species can also be found in West Africa.
The uses described here refer to both Asparagus flagellaris and Asparagus africanus, which are probably used indiscriminately. The young shoot-tips (‘spears’) are fleshy and edible, resembling the asparagus of commerce harvested from Asparagus officinalis L. In Tanzania the young shoots are dug up, peeled and chewed to quench thirst and hunger, especially by children and herdsmen. Uses as a vegetable, fresh or boiled, have been reported from Gabon and southern Africa, but are probably common in several other countries. The fleshy root tubers are edible after several hours cooking. The fruits are sucked out by children in Uganda and Tanzania, especially during famine periods.
The branchlets (cladodes) are the main ingredient of a medicine to combat guinea-worm and of an ointment for hair growth. In the Central African Republic they are eaten to combat stitch. The branchlets are used as a wound medicine in Kenya, to treat earache in Tanzania, and in many countries to treat eyesight troubles. The roots have a variety of medicinal uses. In Senegal and Tanzania they are added to food or baths for treating syphilis, gonorrhoea and other sexually transmitted diseases. In Senegal macerated root is gargled against throat troubles, and in East Africa the roots are chewed for the same purpose. In Ethiopia pounded branches mixed with butter are used as an ointment for the treatment of haemorrhoids. An embrocation is used in Senegal against rheumatism. A hot water infusion is used in Zimbabwe to arrest diarrhoea. In Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Nigeria a root macerate is used against earache, in Nigeria for the treatment of haematuria, in Kenya for curing coughs, in Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania against schistosomiasis and in Tanzania (Teita tribe) as an ingredient of a complicated technique for the treatment of bubonic plague. In East Africa the branchlets, stems or roots are pounded, soaked in water and the infusion drunk 2–3 times a day for the treatment of mental disturbance.
The Maasai in Kenya boil the roots, add milk and give it to women immediately after childbirth to release the afterbirth. In Burkina Faso a decoction of the roots is used to promote healing of the umbilicus of the newborn by external application and in small quantity by draught. In the Central African Republic a root decoction is taken by women wishing to conceive. The roots and branchlets are ingredients of arrow-poison. In Tanzania, seeds are swallowed to prevent eye diseases.
Wild asparagus is used throughout Africa for a wide variety of ailments of cattle. It is used in several ceremonies and initiation rituals. In Tanzania it is planted as an ornamental. In a number of countries, the wiry stems are used for preparing traps and snares for small animals, and for making cord. The woody stem parts are used for making pencils in Sudan.
There is no information on the chemical composition of Asparagus flagellaris, but a few studies have been performed on Asparagus africanus. Small amounts of an alkaloid have been found in the branchlets of Nigerian material, and the cardiac glycosidal activity has been tested and reported negative. Steroidal saponins were isolated from the roots of Asparagus africanus, including 2 monodesmosidic spirostanosides and a bisdesmosidic furostanol glycoside. Antiprotozoal activity has been reported for some compounds isolated from the roots of Asparagus africanus, including the sapogenin muzanzagenin and the lignan (+)-nyasol. These compounds inhibited the growth of Leishmania major promastigotes and Plasmodium falciparum schizonts.
Erect shrub up to 2 m tall, with swollen root tubers; branches smooth or with spines 2–4 mm long, ultimate branchlets (cladodes) in whorls of 1–8, leaf-like, up to 2(–6) cm long, stiff. Flowers axillary, 1–2 together, bisexual, regular, 6-merous, white to purple; pedicel 3–8 mm long; perianth segments 2.5–3 mm long, stamens fused to perianth segments; ovary superior, 3 -celled, style c. 1 mm long, 3-branched. Fruit a globose berry 5–7 mm in diameter, orange-red at maturity, usually 1-seeded. Seed globose, c. 4 mm in diameter, rugose.
Asparagus comprises about 200 species. Many more than 100 of these occur in Africa. Asparagus flagellaris has been much confused with Asparagus africanus, which differs in its usually shorter cladodes and its fascicles of 2–10 slightly larger flowers. Taxonomic studies are still needed to unravel the status and distribution of these two species.
Other wild African Asparagus species of which the spears are also eaten include Asparagus aethiopicus L.,Asparagus laricinus Burch., Asparagus schroederi Engl.,Asparagus setaceus (Kunth) Jessop and Asparagus suaveolens Burch.
Asparagus flagellaris can be found in woodland, savanna and wasteland, up to 1800 m altitude.
Currently, the various plant parts of wild asparagus are collected from the wild. The plants are available to anyone needing them and are not especially protected or managed by the local population. In Tanzania the shoots are collected during the rainy season, the fruits during the dry spells in June–July and December. Wild asparagus can be propagated by seed and by root suckers. The seed has orthodox storage behaviour and can be stored for long periods. In good soil Asparagus flagellaris can be grown to produce thick succulent shoots.
Genetic resources and breeding
Asparagus flagellaris is quite common in its natural range of distribution, and not in danger of genetic erosion. No collections are known for the purpose of genetic conservation or improvement.
The spears of Asparagus flagellaris or other wild Asparagus species are not marketed. Currently, the potential of wild asparagus seems limited, due to the high fibre content of the spears. Commercial asparagus production is based on the common asparagus, Asparagus officinalis L., but Asparagus flagellaris seems to have potential for genetic improvement. The use of fruits will remain of local importance only, but medicinal uses of the plant may be exploited commercially and deserve further research attention, considering the proven activity of many Asparagus compounds.
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Correct citation of this article:
van der Burg, W.J., 2004. Asparagus flagellaris (Kunth) Baker In: Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA 2: Vegetables/Légumes. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.