Historical Sketch

The word "asparagus" is said to be of Persian origin. In middle Latin it appears as sparagus; Italian, sparajio; old French, esperaje; old English, sperage, sparage, sperach. The middle Latin form, sparagus, was in English changed into sparagrass, sparrow-grass, and sometimes simply grass, terms

which were until recently in good literary use. In modern French it is asperge; German, spargel; Dutch, aspergie; Spanish, esperrago. The original habitat of the edible asparagus is not positively known, as it is now found naturalized throughout Europe, as well as in nearly all parts of the civilized world. How long the plant was used as a vegetable or as a medicine is likewise uncertain, but that it was known and highly prized by the Romans at least two centuries before the Christian era is historically recorded. According to Pliny, the Romans were already aware of the difference in quality, that grown near Ravenna being considered best, and was so large that three spears weighed one pound. The elder Cato has treated the subject with still greater care. He advises the sowing of the seed of asparagus in the beds of vine-dressers' reeds, which are cultivated in Italy for the support of the vines, and that they should be burned in the spring of the third year, as the ashes would act as a manure to the future crop. He also recommends that the plants be renewed after eight or nine years. The usual method of preparing asparagus pursued by the Roman cooks was to select the finest sprouts and to dry them. When wanted for the table they were put in hot water and cooked a few minutes. To this practice is owing one of Emperor Augustus's favorite sayings: "Citius quam asparagi coquentur" (Do it quicker than you can cook asparagus). While the indigenous asparagus has been used from time immemorial as a medicine by Gauls, Germans, and Britons, its cultivation and use as a vegetable was only made known to the people by the invading Roman armies. But in the early part of the sixteenth century it was mentioned among the cultivated garden vegetables, and Leonard Meager, in his "English Gardener," published in 1683, informs us that in his time the London market was well supplied with "forced" asparagus. The medicinal virtues formerly attributed to asparagus comprise a wide range. The roots, sprouts, and seeds were used as medicine. The fresh roots are diuretic, perhaps owing to the immediate crystalizable principle, "asparagine," which is said to be sedative in the dose of a few grains. A syrup made of the young shoots and an extract of the roots has been recommended as a sedative in heart affections, and the species diuretica--a mixture of asparagus, celery, parsley, holly, and sweet fennel--was a favorite preparation for use in dropsy and gravel. Among the Greeks and Romans it was one of the oldest and most valued medicines, and to which most absurd virtues were attributed. It was believed that if a person anointed himself with a liniment made of asparagus and oil the bees would not approach or sting him. It was also believed that if the root be put on a tooth which aches violently it causes it to come out without pain. The therapeutic virtues of asparagus seem to have been held in almost as high esteem by the ancients as those of ginseng are esteemed by the Chinese to this day.

Next: Botany

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