Asparagaceae: The Asparagus Family

My life changed during a visit to Malta in 2016. While driving along the scenic coast on a gorgeous sunny day, a gigantic asparagus loomed in the distance. Driving closer, the 30-foot-tall behemoth emerged from a what appeared to be an aloe plant. At the time, I thought—well, I guess they have gigantic asparagus-aloe plants here, what do I know? Only later did I learn that I had seen a flowering agave plant, a botanical relative of asparagus.

Agave growing along the cliffs of Malta.

Why did this change my life? This experience transformed my casual interest in plants into the plant family project you see on my website today. I was struck by how seemingly disparate plants are connected and patterns of life manifest in surprising ways.

The asparagus family in particular exemplifies this: Not only does it include asparagus and agave but also a big chunk of my (maybe your?) houseplants. The lucky bamboo they sell in stores? Not bamboo—asparagus family! Many of our favorite garden and woodland plants, like hostas, are in this family too.

Magdalena Island Agave (Agave margaritae) shows the giant asparagus stalk in full force. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
The “asparagus” turns into a tree-like stalk as it matures. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.


Ah, asparagus: the plant that started it all. Asparagus ignited my interest in foraging, not necessarily by choice. For years my mom was obsessed—no, possessed—by an unending hunger to find wild asparagus. We tried many years, driving to random highway roads where she swore she saw it 5 years ago while flying by at 50 miles per hour. Let’s just say that foraging is for the patient-hearted.

Then, one day during a casual bike ride on the Oak Leaf Trail, I spotted an asparagus out of the corner of my eye. Just growing right out of the ground like in a whimsical fairy tale. The primal hunger within was fed a taste. I was excited.

It was time to go on the hunt. Where there’s one, there’s many, right? Wrong. Turns out, it’s hard to spot these tiny green things camouflaged by endless other green things. They don’t just grow in a patch all together like it’s a farm. We developed asparagus vision. At the end of 1 hour of greedy searching, we scored enough asparagus for …. One serving.

Photographic proof of my Mom’s first wild asparagus stalk. It was a triumphant moment for two people with a small dream.
It was a good day.

We’re not the only ones possessed by this fleeting green vegetable: asparagus festivals abound in California and Oceana County, MI (the “asparagus capital of the world”). Germany really gets into the spirit with the Spargelfest, celebrating the white asparagus harvest, the Schwetzingen festival, wherein an asparagus queen is crowned, and the Nuremberg festival, where fellow possessed souls compete in an asparagus peeling quickness contest.

What did we do with our one serving of asparagus? There are many possibilities: Asparagus can be pickled, grilled, made into soup, eaten raw in salads, stir fried, and much more.

Wild sauteed asparagus. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Asparagus soup. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
White asparagus is white because it’s buried in soil: The soil covers the asparagus and blocks sunlight and hence photosynthesis; no photosynthesis means the shoots remain white. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

What’s more, there are over 300 other asparagus species, some of which also have edible young shoots like garden asparagus. The Southern African scrub is home to many spindly, creeping, prickly asparagus species.

The young shoots of African asparagus (A. africanus) are eaten as well as the roots. Photo credits: Wikipedia Commons.
Traditional medicinal uses of A. africanus are widespread throughout Africa. Photo credits: Wikipedia Commons.
Sprenger’s asparagus (A. aethiopicus). The characteristic red berries of asparagus species are typically poisonous to humans but spread by birds. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Agave: The Peoples’ Plant

Century plants (Agave americana) in Pompeii, Italy.

What I was seeing in Malta was in fact an agave plant, also called century plants because they grow very slowly and take decades to flower. I was thus fortunate to witness a rare flowering event in such a beautiful location to boot.

Desert agave (A. deserti). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Desert agave (A. deserti). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The agave is a fundamental plant in Mesoamerican cultures. The flowers, leaves, rosettes, and sap are edible. In fact, the huge flowering stalk can produce several pounds of edible flowers. The spines are so strong that people have used them as sewing needles.

Colorful spines of Shaw’s agave (Agave shawii). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Lion’s tail agave (Agave attenuata) at the Milwaukee Domes.

Agave was a major food source of indigenous people in the Southwest U.S. Archaeologists have estimated that the Hohokam people in present-day Arizona cultivated enough agave to provide 20% of their daily caloric needs.

Agave victoriae-reginae in the UWM Greenhouse.

Agave is also the source of mezcal and tequila, which are made from baking the plant hearts (piñas) and then roasting and crushing these to release the aquamiel (literally “honey water”). This liquid is then fermented and distilled.

Some agaves yield fiber from their leaves, known as pita. The fibers can be used to make rope, nets, bags, sacks, shoes, carpets, dartboards, and cloth, and even paper. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Unlike most agaves, foxtail or swan’s neck agave (A. attenuata) doesn’t have teeth or spines and thus makes a good (safe) garden plant. It also develops an unusual curved flower stalk.

Agave is easily confused with yucca, also in this plant family. Yucca are known for their spiky, tough sword-shaped leaves for which they are referred to as dagger plants or Spanish bayonet. Like agave, yucca has many edible plants parts and its fiber is harvested to make sandals, baskets, rope, and more. The flower petals are commonly eaten in central America after being blanched and combined with other items like sauce, tomato, onion, or chili.

Flowering hardy Adam’s needle (Yucca flaccida) in my front yard.
Chaparral yucca, our Lord’s candle, or Spanish bayonet (H. whipplei). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Some yucca species are more treelike, such as the Joshua tree yucca or palm tree yucca (Yucca brevifolia). They live for hundreds of years, sometimes even a thousand years. The story behind the name “Joshua tree” is commonly thought to be religious: The tree (and others with the same name as well as the namesake Joshue Tree National Park) was thought to guide Mormon settles who were crossing the Mojave Desert in the middle of the 19th century.

Joshua tree yucca or palm tree yucca (Yucca brevifolia). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
A much smaller Joshua tree at the Milwaukee Domes.
Yucca aloifolia in the UWM Greenhouse.

Dasylirion, often referred to as sotol or desert spoon, are drought-tolerant plants native to northern Mexico that look very similar to yucca or agave. Some indigenous people use the plant in ways similar to agave, such as turning the young flowering stalk into alcohol called sotol, baking the crowns and pounding into flour for bread, or using the leaves to make basketry.

Sandpaper sotol (Dasylirion serratifolium) at the Orto Botanico of the Università di Firenze.

Starchy Roots

This plant family contains important sources of starch. One important example is the camas plant, the bulbs of which were an important food source for both indigenous people and settlers along the Pacific Northwest, including the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Many Asparagaceae plants are geophytes, meaning they have a storage organ for energy (such as an underground bulb or rhizome) or water (such as caudex) which allows them to survive periods of drought or famine. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Indigenous people cultivated blue camas (Camassia quamash) through controlled burns, weeding, and propagating bulbs. Cama plots were stewarded by family groups. Those who didn’t grow them traded for them as part of an extensive cama trade network. They were produced in large volumes for potlach occasions, which served important economic and social functions. Pit-roasted cama bulbs taste similar to but sweeter than sweet potato.

As prairies diminished due to livestock, the extensive cama population declined, though there are still plenty of cama prairies and marshes in the western U.S. Their mark on history is indicated by the naming of the city of Camas in Washington and many other western U.S. landmarks.

Camas Prairie Centennial Park. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Indigenous people and settlers harvested the bulbs of crown brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria) which are edible raw and have a nutty celery taste. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Vernalpool brodiaea (B. minor). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) is a common sight in New Zealand. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Ti plant (Cordyline fruticosa) is also an important food, dye, medicinal, ornamental, and religious plant to widespread peoples in the Pacific Ocean region. It plays an important role in animist religions and is thought to be sacred and have magical powers especially to exorcise bad spirits or treat “soul loss” illnesses. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The Maori of New Zealand have had many uses for plants in this family as well. Cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) is a source of food, fiber, and medicine and has significant spiritual meaning as well. In addition to cooking the rhizomes in earth ovens to extract sugar, growing tips or leaf hearts were eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable.

Getting Clean

Some of the same species that are used as starchy foods are also used for their lathering properties Like the soapberry family, they contain saponins that produce a soapy lather when mixed with water. What’s more, some particularly fibrous plants produce soap with built-in brushes.

The octopus agave (A. vilmoriniana). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

For example, the leaves of the octopus agave in Mexico are dried and beaten to make a soapy brush. The bulbs of the California soap plant (C. pomeridianum) are covered in fibers that can be made into small brushes. Although the saponins make the bulbs poisonous raw, they are edible after being roasted. The Donner Party purportedly were given some of these bulbs by locals.

California soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) is the most common of the soap plants. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Butcher’s broom (Ruscus spp.) is another plant with soapy qualities as well as another cleaning use: its flat prickly branches were originally harvested to make hand brooms for cleaning off butcher blocks.


As I delved deeper into this family, I realized that I was surrounded by its members in the form of my houseplants: asparagus fern, snake plant, spider plant, dracaenas, cast iron plant, lucky bamboo. That’s right — not even the lucky bamboo escapes the clutches of the Asparagus.

Common asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus).
Asparagus fern or foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Cast-iron plant (Aspidistra). Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Cast-iron plant is a famously indestructible plant tolerant of neglect and cold. It became a symbol of the middle class in Victorian Britain, such as is represented by the main character in George Orwell’s book “Keep the Aspidistra Flying.”

The spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), a popular houseplant, is native to South Africa. The NASA Clean Air Study found this plant along with others to be effective at filtering and reducing indoor air pollution. UWM Greenhouse.
My Dracaena houseplant.
Variegated lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) in the UWM Greenhouse.
Lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana)

Dracaena is another collection of plants that find their way into people’s homes. The genus name Dracaena derives from Greek for “female dragon.” Most of them hail from Africa.

The dragon blood tree (D. cinnabari), native to Socotra island of Yemen, is so called because of the red sap it produces that is used in dye and medicine applications as well as magico-religious purposes. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Dracaena stuckyi. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Pregnant Onions

One fun section of this family is its collection of bulbous onion-like plants called pregnant onions.

The pregnant onion or sea onion (Albuca bracteata) forms unique little bulblets when it’s ready to reproduce.⁠ UWM Greenhouse.
The corkscrew albuca or frizzle sizzle (A. spiralis) at the UWM Greenhouse.
A. spiralis flowers are scented like almonds or vanilla. UWM Greenhouse.
The sea onion (Bowiea volubilis) is another such plant that forms bulbils for propagation. The large swollen bulb goes dormant in winter and dries to a papery state, but shoots reemerge in warmer weather with fast-growing stems. UWM Greenhouse.
The sea onion is also called climbing onion because of the way its tendrils can grow rapidly when conditions are favorable. When it is dry, the plant lies dormant underground. Milwaukee Domes.
Sea squill bulb (Drimia maritima). Credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Sea squills (Drimia maritima). Credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Sea squill (Drimia martima) at the Orto Botanico of the Università di Firenze.

Africa is home to other deciduous bulbs. Most well-known is the sea squill (Drimia maritima) which has been used both as a poison and in medicinal applications since antiquity in ancient Egypt and Greece, such as hanging outside of doors for protection against evil spirits and to ring in the new year.

Spring Woodland Flowers

This plant family checks off a lot of boxes for me: food, other human uses, houseplants, gigantic spiky leaves, weird oddities, and—just to put the cherry on top—cute little spring flowers that bring happiness after a long winter. Thus, we end this journey with pretty pictures of the spring flowers.

Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). Speaking of lilies, many species in this family are called lilies although they are not “true” lilies, Most of the lilies of the family were split off into their own family, Liliaceae.
Star-flowered lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum stellatum) sometimes also called false Solomon’s seal. It has a characteristic zigzag of the stem between alternating leaves.

The common bluebell (H. non-scripta) is a popular garden ornamental plant, especially in the United Kingdom where it is a protected plant. In the wild, it grows in old-growth forests called bluebell woods.

Bluebell forest in Pryor’s Wood in the United Kingdom. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

This family even includes the hosta, a favorite hardy garden plant of many—not me, however. I have a weird unexplained disdain for them. There are possibly as many cultivars as there are hosta enthusiasts, some of whom are surely subscribing members of the American Hosta Society. There are also some very interesting “recipes” out there for these edible plants. They are grown as vegetables in some parts of Asia. I’ll pass.

Blue plaintain-lily (Hosta ventricosa) on the UW-Milwaukee campus.
Hosta sieboldiana ‘Elegans.’ Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.
Squills (Scilla spp.) on the UW-Milwaukee campus.
Squills (Scilla spp.) in Cudahy Nature Preserve.

Carpets of squills are a common sight in Wisconsin in spring but are actually considered invasive. Learn more about ephemeral spring flowers.

Hyacinth orientalis in a neighbor’s yard.
Common grape hyacinth (Muscari botryoides) in my Mom’s yard.

Is it spring yet? Is it asparagus season yet? I patiently wait.