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(Asparagus family)


• Medicinal / Folk-medicinal aspects: •
• Adverse effects: •
• Veterinary aspects: •

Until recently, the genus Asparagus L. was the only representative of the family (Brummitt 1992), having been moved out from its earlier position in the Liliaceae. The Asparagaceae as it is currently conceived includes the previously distinct families Herreriaceae and Ruscaceae, thus bringing together 150 species in 6 genera. The plants are shrubs or lianes (Mabberley 1997).

The young shoots of Asparagus officinalis L., the garden asparagus, are highly esteemed as a vegetable. Human exposure to this vegetable occurs frequently because it is an article of commerce. Asparagus setaceus Jessop (the asparagus fern), Asparagus sprengeri, and Ruscus aculeatus L. (butcher's broom) are also grown commercially for use in the floristry trade.

Asparagus L.

The 130 or so species of this genus are widely distributed over the Old World. Several species are of horticultural value, particularly as foliage for bouquets, e.g. Asparagus asparagoides, Asparagus setaceus Jessop (syn. Asparagus plumosus), Asparagus sprengeri, and Asparagus medeoloides. Thorny stems, which are capable of inflicting mechanical injury, are a characteristic of this genus.

Asparagus africanus Lam.
[syns Asparagopsis lamarckii Kunth, Protasparagus africanus Oberm.]
African Asparagus, Bush Asparagus, Climbing Asparagus, Orange-Fruited Asparagus Fern

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Asparagus falcatus L.

The stems of this species are armed with thorns that can inflict mechanical injury.

Asparagus officinalis L.
Garden Asparagus

Schaffner (1903a) asserted that asparagus will sometimes blister the skin of those who work with it. The young shoots are highly esteemed as a vegetable and cultivators, canners and cooks handling them are exposed to the risk of dermatitis. According to Hurst (1942), Asparagus officinalis contains asparagin, coniferin and the glucoside of vanillin, but these are apparently not the sensitisers (see below).

Prolonged and repeated exposure is usually necessary to induce dermatitis. Possibly the first recorded cases (Güntz 1880) were two patients who prepared asparagus in a restaurant, who developed vesicular dermatitis of hands, arms, neck and face, and also conjunctivitis. Brenning's (1920) patient had handled asparagus for 8 years before she developed dermatitis, and Schoenhof's (1924) for 18 years.

The tendency for all exposed skin to be affected to some degree and to be papular or vesicular was again demonstrated by Sternthal's (1925) patient. A vegetable cook in a large hotel (Urbach 1929) had an extensive dermatitis of hands, forearms and face, and gave bullous patch test reactions on the skin and on the gums. She developed itching and blisters after eating asparagus. However another woman with asparagus dermatitis could eat asparagus without discomfort (Courmont 1930). Dermatitis of the hands and arms developed in a worker on an asparagus farm (Hajos and Mohrmann 1929). Progressive desensitisation appeared to follow repeated application of the plant to the skin.

In Brunswick, Germany, where much asparagus was grown and canned, dermatitis was well known to those engaged in the industry (Sternthal 1925). Halberg (1932) also reported cases in a canning factory; he obtained positive patch-test reactions with the juice, i.e. the fluid in which the asparagus had been cooked, but not with asparagin.

It is only the young shoots which are tender and gastronomically desirable, and it is normally only these that are gathered and prepared. There is some evidence that only the young shoots cause dermatitis (Hardin and Arena 1974). A patient reported by Stewart (1972) reacted to young shoots but could handle the mature plants with impunity. Patch tests confirmed the clinical observations. Since asparagus is known to contain vanillin, the patient was also patch tested with balsam of Peru (from Myroxylon balsamum Harms, fam. Leguminosae); there was no reaction. The same author usefully confirmed that in normal subjects a patch test with young asparagus shoots provokes at the most a transitory irritant reaction.


  • Brenning, C. (1920) A case of dermatitis due to Asparagus. Derm. Wschr. 71: 851.
  • Brummitt RK (1992) Vascular Plant Families and Genera. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens [WorldCat]
  • Courmont, P. (1930) Anaphylaxis cutanée au suc d'asperges. Lyon Med. 145: 184.
  • Güntz, J.-E. (1880) Miliaria - Ausschlag in Folge var Beruhrung mit Roham Spargel (Asparagus officinalis). Vierteljahrresschrift Derm. Syph. 7: 65.
  • Hajos, B. and Mohrmann, B.H.U. (1929) Spargelidiosyncrasie. Klin. Wschr. 8: 1024.
  • Halberg, V. (1932) Five cases of asparagus dermatitis. Hospitalstidende 75: 1235.
  • Hardin JW, Arena JM (1974) Human Poisoning from Native and Cultivated Plants, 2nd edn. Durham, NC: Duke University Press [WorldCat] [url]
  • Hurst E (1942) The Poison Plants of New South Wales. Sydney: NSW Poison Plants Committee [WorldCat] [url]
  • Mabberley DJ (1997) The Plant-Book. A portable dictionary of the higher plants. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Schaffner JH (1903a) Poisonous and other injurious plants of Ohio. The Ohio Naturalist 4(1): 16-19 [doi] [url] [url-2]
  • Schoenhof, S. (1924) Asparagus dermatitis. Derm. Wschr. 79: 1221.
  • Sternthal, A. (1925) Asparagus dermatitis. Derm. Wschr. 80: 254.
  • Stewart, W.D. (1972) Personal communication to J.C. Mitchell.
  • Urbach, E. (1929) Epidermale und epimucöse Spargeldermatitis. Zentralblatt für U.u.G. 32: 35.

Richard J. Schmidt

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