Wild asparagus roots, also known as Tian Men Dong in Pinyin, are an important folk medicine that is often overlooked since it is not as popular as other Chinese herbs like Chinese yam and Goji Berry. As a matter of fact, this herb has long been viewed as a rare plant that is with edible, medicinal uses since ancient time. This is why it was chosen and listed as a top-grade medicine in the “Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic”. According to basic theories of Chinese medicine, it is good at nourishing Yin to moisten dryness, clearing away the lung-heat, and promoting the secretion of saliva or body fluid. That’s to say, clinically this is an effective herb for cough due to heat formation from Yin deficiency. And modern science discovered it can minimize bacterial growth.
What is asparagus root?
Medicinally it mainly refers to the dried tubers of Asparagus cochinchinensis (Lour.) Merr., which is a member in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Asparagoideae. Sometimes Asparagus spinosissimus Wang et SC Chen., a close relative plant in the same genus mainly distributed in Tibet, is also used for the same medicinal purpose. Hence, other common names of this herb include asparagus tuber, wild asparagus root, Shatavri, Tian Dong, Radix Asparagi, Asparagus cochinchinensis, red asparagus root, asparagus rhizomes, and the like. In China it is mainly produced in provinces of Guizhou, Sichuan, and Guangxi. It is usually dug up in autumn and winter. And then it still needs to clean, remove the stem base and fibrous roots, place in boiling water to cook or steam soft, get rid of the skin when it is still hot, clean again, dry, and finally slice or segment. Medicinally it is normally used raw.
In fact Asparagus is a genus in Asparagaceae family. This genus has a total of about 300 asparagus varieties. Among them the most famous one is Asparagus officinalis (often simply called “Asparagus”) since asparagus shoot is edible and widely grown as spring vegetable. Some other species, like asparagus fern, Asparagus africanus, and Asparagus densiflorus, are used for ornamental purpose.
Asparagus cochinchinensis is a climbing perennial herb. Stems are thin and with longitudinal grooves. 2-3 leafy branches cluster in the leaf axils and they are linear, flat, 1 to 3cm long, and about 1mm wide. Leaves are reduced to scales and leaves on the main stem often turn into short recurved spines. 1 to 3 flowers cluster in leaf axils too and they are yellowish white or white; tepals are 6; pistil is 1; ovary has 3 rooms. Berry is spherical and red when ripe. Flowering time is in May. Habitat is mountains in the wild or cultivated in gardens. Just like any other natural wild herbs, the yield of wild asparagus root is dwindling over time due to the fact of the overexploitation. Although this herb can be cultivated today, the cultivated one is with much poorer healing properties. By the way, growing it by asparagus seeds takes at least a year more to get the crop than planting by asparagus crowns.
It contains Asparagine, gelatinous substance, β-sitosterol, 5-methoxymethylfurfural, steroid saponin, a variety of amino acids, octulose, oligosaccharide, polysaccharides, and so on.
Asparagus roots benefits
Since ancient time, its health benefits have been acknowledged and of course it was used as more than just a cough medicine. The “Compendium of Materia Medica” says that the preserved asparagus in alcohol is also an anti-aging beauty product that can tonify the Five Zang-organs, regulate the Six fu-organs, and thereby protect the drinkers from illness; Sheng Ji Zong Lu (Complete Record of Holy Benevolence) reviews that its ground powder is an impressive facial cleanser, which help in skin whitening.
In Chinese herbal remedies, “Er Dong” (Two Dong) is the common ingredient, which literally is the abbreviation for Tian Men Dong and Mai Men Dong (Ophiopogon, Monkey Grass). They are often put together for the treatment of intestinal dryness with constipation because they have similar healing properties – nourishing lung-stomach yin, moistening lung dryness, clearing lung-stomach heat, helping produce saliva and quench thirst. Another important reason they needs each other is that they can mutually promote the efficacy based on their differences. Asparagus is more bitter and cold in nature, which makes it possess more powerful ability on clearing fire and moistening dryness. In addition, since it acts on kidney and nourishes Yin, it is also appropriate for syndromes of kidney-yin deficiency and the hyperactivity of deficient fire. In comparison, monkey grass is slightly cold and with weaker power of clearing fire and moistening dryness. For the same reason, it is more easily digested and absorbed. What’s more, in combination of clearing heart heat to relieving restlessness and calming heart to tranquilize mind, monkey grass is especially fit for syndromes of heart-yin deficiency and the hyperactivity of heart heat. Now as you can see, these two herbs have not only similar name, but also similar medicinal uses. Hence, clinically they are a perfect match for nourishing Yin and moistening lung.
Modern pharmacological actions of asparagus rhizomes
1) Asparagine has certain effects on relieving asthma, suppressing coughing, and promoting expectoration;
2) Asparagine can result in peripheral vasodilation, lowered blood pressure, enhanced cardiac contractility, decreased heart rate and increased urine output;
3) Its decoction in vitro tests has different degrees of inhibition on alpha hemolytic streptococcus, beta hemolytic streptococcus, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, and more;
4) It can increase peripheral white blood cell count, enhance the phagocytotic ability of reticuloendothelial system, and boost humoral immunity;
5) Its decoction and alcohol extract can promote antibody production and prolong the survival time of the antibody;
6) Its decoction and alcohol extract can prevent mutations in experimental animals’ cells, increase cAMP levels in tumor cells, and inhibit the proliferation of tumor cells.
Sample asparagus roots recipes on herbal remedies
The Chinese Pharmacopoeia says that it is sweet, bitter in flavor and cold in nature. It covers meridians of lung and kidney. Essential functions are nourishing yin to moisten dryness and clearing lung heat to produce body fluid. Main asparagus roots uses and indications include lung-heat induced dry cough, whooping cough with sticky sputum, dry throat and thirst, and constipation due to intestinal dryness. Recommended dosage is from 6 to 12 grams. In addition, asparagus root extract or powder is available too.
1) San Cai Tang from Wen Bing Tiao Bian (Detailed Analysis of Warm Diseases). It is coupled with Ren Shen (Ginseng) and Sheng Di Huang (Rehmannia Glutinosa) to treat fever induced Yin impairment, dry mouth, body fluid deficiency, and diabetes;
2) Tian Men Dong Wan from Tai Ping Sheng Hui Fang (Taiping Holy Prescriptions for Universal Relief). It is combined with Huo Ma Ren (Hemp Seeds), Jie Geng (Balloon Flower), Sheng Ma (Cimicifuga), Kuan Dong Hua (Tussilago Farfara), etc. to cure posttyphoid consumptive lung disease, cough due to internal injury, wheezing, reduced appetite, and emaciation;
3) Fu Zi Tian Men Dong San from Sheng Ji Zong Lu (Complete Record of Holy Benevolence). It is formulated with Fu Zi (aconite), Shi Chang Pu (Acorus Gramineus), Mu Xiang (Costus), etc. to benefit Qi, tonify deficiency, delay aging, and prolong life;
4) Tian Men Dong Jiu from the “Compendium of Materia Medica”. It is blended with sorghum liquor to heal lung-kidney yin deficiency induced consumptive cough with blood, dry mouth, sore throat, constipation, and aching, numb muscle in limbs.
Clinical research on asparagus tuber
According to reports, this herb is frequently used to treat breast lobular hyperplasia, breast cancer, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, whooping cough, arrhythmia, hepatitis, tumors, and so on.
a) Breast lobular hyperplasia and breast cancer have been treated with its decoction, tablets, syrups, and the like. In terms of decoctions, the steps are to peel asparagus roots and steam for 30 to 60 minutes, three times a day, 63g daily. And among 42 cases of breast lobular hyperplasia, 16 cases were cured, 8 cases markedly effective, and 11 cases effective; and breast cancer cases saw somewhat reduced local lump and metastatic cervical lymph nodes;
b) To some extent dysfunctional uterine bleeding can be treated by its decoction at the dose of 15-30g, taken with brown sugar, once a day.
Asparagus roots side effects and contraindications
The mucilage containing in Wild asparagus roots can promote the secretion of salivary glands, gastric, and intestinal glands. So, it improves dry mouth and dry stool by nourishing yin to produce saliva and body fluid. Just because of this, it is not suitable for people with stagnated dampness due to spleen deficiency, loss of appetite, watery stool, and greasy tongue coating. In addition, it shouldn’t be used in the cases of cough caused by diarrhea due to deficiency and cold and exterior syndrome.
a) Jiang Su Zhong Yi (Jiangsu Chinese Medicine), 1976; 4:33;
b) Chi Jiao Yi Sheng Za Zhi (Journal of Barefoot Doctors), 1975; 12:594.