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Asparagaceae. Asparagus Family Plants.

Asparagaceae
Plants of the Asparagus Family

Formerly included within the Lily family.

      In splitting up the old Lily family into smaller families of more closely related plants, taxonomists defined the Asparagus, Agave, Beargrass, and Brodiaea families, listing them as distinct families sensu stricto ("in the strict sense"), or lumping them together as subfamilies within a conglomerate Asparagus family, sensu lato ("in the wider sense"). Taxonomists currently favor the latter, but unfortunately, the conglomerate family lacks any obvious patterns for intuitive identification. Separate descriptions are provided for each of the subfamilies here to clarify identification. Similar to other lily-like families, members of the Asparagus family typically have 3 sepals and 3 petals that are similar in size and color, plus 6 stamens and a 3-parted pistil.

Subfamilies of the Asparagus Family
Asparagus Subfamily | Agave Subfamily | Beargrass Subfamily| Brodiaea Subfamily

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Asparagus Subfamily

      Instead of true leaves, Asparagus has leaf-like branches for photosynthesis. This subfamily includes only two genera, Asparagus, from the Old World, and Hemiphylacus from Mexico..

Asparagus officinalis. Asparagus.

Asparagus officinalis. Asparagus.

Foraging the Mountain West
Foraging the Mountain West

Beargrass Subfamily

      The Beargrass subfamily of the Asparagus family was cobbled together from a number of closely related groups of plants that were previously proposed as independent families themselves, including Ruscaceae, Dracaenaceae, Convallariaceae, Eriospermaceae, and Nolinaceae. And of course, all of these little families were historically lumped together into one big Lily family.

      Similar to other lily-like flowers, these plants have 3 sepals and 3 petals that are similar in size and color, plus 6 stamens and a 3-parted pistil. In some species the petals are united and bell-shaped or tubular. The ovary is positioned superior and matures into a berry in Convallaria and its closest relatives. In Nolina and Dasylirion the ovary matures as a 3-sided capsule that superficially resembles fruits of the Buckwheat family, while the vegetation confused with Yucca and Agave from the Agave subfamily. The bottom line is that there isn't a particularly good pattern to summarize this group. Also keep in mind that there is another plant called beargrass (Xerophyllum) in the Bunchflower family.

Maianthemum stellatum. Star Solomon's Seal.

Maianthemum stellatum. Star Solomon's Seal.

Maianthemum racemosum or Smilacina racemosa. Solomon's Plume.

Maianthemum racemosum. (a.k.a. Smilacina racemosa) Solomon's Plume.

Dasylirion wheeleri. Sotol.

Dasylirion wheeleri. Sotol. Near Portal, Arizona.

Maianthemum dilatatum. False Lily-of-the-Valley.

Maianthemum dilatatum. False Lily-of-the-Valley. Photographed along the northern California coast.

Nolina sp. Nolina.

Nolina sp. Nolina. Near Portal, Arizona.

Foraging the Mountain West
Foraging the Mountain West

Brodiaea Subfamily

      The Brodiaea have lily-like flowers with 3 sepals and 3 petals that are similar in size and color, plus 6 stamens and a 3-parted pistil. In many species the petals are united, at least at the base, forming tubular flowers. Flowers range from white to blue and purple, rarely red or yellow. They are typically grouped in umbels which emerge from a spathe-like bract (a modified leaf). Brodiaea leaves and flowers are somewhat similar to onions (Allium) from the Amaryllis family, but onions produce a bulb, while Brodiaeas produce a starchy corm instead. .

Triteleia grandiflora. Brodiaea Lily.

Triteleia grandiflora. Brodiaea Lily.

Dichelostemma capitatum. Blue Dicks.

Dichelostemma capitatum. Blue Dicks. Arizona.


Agave Subfamily

      Plants of the Agave subfamily of the Asparagus family have mostly basal leaves and a central flower stalk, sometimes with additional leaves alternating up the stalk. In most species, the base of the plant, or the bulb (if present), is surrounded by a brown fibrous layer. Adapting to a particular environment can radically impact the outward appearance of a species compared to its kin. The desert-dwelling Agave and Yucca are tough plants with fibrous, sharp-tipped leaves, while Camassia is a more tender plant found with its starchy bulb and roots in the water. The soap plant (Chlorogalum) enjoys an intermediate environment and has intermediate characteristics, while the sand lily (Leucocrinum) is adapted to shady, moist forests like the Lily family plants it greatly resembles. Some plants in the Agave and Beargrass subfamilies share superficial similarities.

Camassia quamash. Blue camas.

Camassia quamash. Blue camas.

Camassia quamash. Blue camas.

Camassia quamash. Blue Camas.

Yucca baccata. Banana Yucca.

Yucca baccata. Banana Yucca. Fort Bowie National Historic Monument. Arizona.

Yucca baccata. Banana Yucca.

Yucca baccata. Banana Yucca. Fort Bowie National Historic Monument. Arizona.

Yucca glauca. Soapweed Yucca.

Yucca glauca. Soapweed Yucca. Red Rocks Park. Denver, Colorado. This is a hardy species of yucca that grows wild as far north as Montana.

Yucca elata. Soap Tree Yucca.

Yucca elata. Soap Tree Yucca. Near Portal, Arizona.

Yucca glauca. Soapweed Yucca.

Yucca glauca. Soapweed Yucca. Tongue River, Montana.

Yucca glauca. Soapweed Yucca.

Yucca glauca. Soapweed Yucca. Tongue River, Montana.

Agave palmerii. Palmer's Agave.

Agave palmerii. Palmer's Agave. Near Portal, Arizona.

Foraging the Mountain West
Foraging the Mountain West

There are more
Asparagus Family pictures
at PlantSystematics.org.


Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
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Botany in a Day
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Foraging the Mountain West

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