65. Asparagus officinalis, Linn.—Common Asparagus.
Sex. Syst. Hexandria, Monogynia.
(Turionea et Radix.)
A well-known indigenous culinary vegetable, which is extensively cultivated in gardens for its young succulent shoots (turiones asparagi), which, when boiled, form a much admired article of food. These, as well as the root (radix asparagi), have been used in medicine.
The shoots have been chemically examined by Robiquet, [Ann. de Chim. lv. 152: also, Thomson's Chemistry of Organic Bodies—Vegetables, 1838.] who found in their juice asparagin, mannite, peculiar aqueous extractive, green acrid oleo-resinous matter, wax, gluten, albumen, colouring matter, and salts of potash and lime.
Dulong [Journ. de Pharm, t. xii. p. 278, 1826.] analyzed the root, and found in it albumen, gum, a peculiar matter (precipitable by basic acetate of lead and protonitrate of mercury), resin, saccharine matter (reddened by oil of vitriol), and salts of potash and lime. He detected neither asparagin nor mannite.
Asparagin (also called asparamid, althaein, and agédoil) crystallizes in right rhombic prisms, [Mr. C. Brooke, Pharm. Journ. vol. vi. p. 560, 1847.] whose formula is C8H8N2O6+2HO). When heated to 248° F., they lose 12 per cent. of water. They have a cooling, somewhat nauseous taste, are slightly soluble in cold water, more so in boiling water, but are insoluble in alcohol and ether. By the action of acids and alkalies aided by heat asparagin is resolved into aspartic acid, C8H5NO6, and ammonia, NH3. Asparagin is found in the urine of those who have swallowed it (see ante, p. 279).
The young shoots act as diuretics, and communicate a peculiar fetid odour [Murray (App. Med. vol. v. p. 184, 1700) thinks the odour not dissimilar to that of Geranium robertianum.] to the urine. This is produced neither by the asparagin nor by the volatile matter contained in the distilled water of the shoots, but by something which resides in the aqueous extract. [Plisson et Henry fils, in Journ. de Pharm, xvi. 725, 1830.] Formerly, an emmenagogue and aphrodisiac property was ascribed to asparagus.
The medicinal properties of the root are similar to those of the shoots. Like the latter, it communicates an unpleasant odour to the urine. It formed one of the five greater aperient roots (radices quinque aperientes majores) which were formerly used in visceral diseases. The other four were butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus), celery or smallage (Apium graveolens), parsley (Petroselinum sativum), and fennel (Foeniculum officinale).
Though no longer contained in our Pharmacopoeia, asparagus is still occasionally used as a popular remedy, chiefly as a diuretic in dropsies, and as a lithic. [For some experiments on the solvent power of asparagus-juice for urinary calculi, see Lobb's Treatise on Dissolvents of the Stone, 1739.] For these purposes the shoots are boiled and used at table; or the root, which is considered superior to the shoots, is taken in the form of an infusion or decoction (prepared by boiling an ounce of the root in a quart of water), which may be taken as a common drink.