Friday, January 9, 2015

A is for Asphodel

"Others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel."
-from The Lotos-Eaters by Lord Alfred Tennyson

While botanizing at the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve recently, we spotted a strange plant thriving in a shallow muddy basin near the Apache Wash trailhead. About two feet tall and sporting dozens of tiny white, bell-shaped flowers and a rosette of long, thin leaves, it was unlike any I'd seen in this desert before. 
A single specimen of Onion Weed mingles with Sahara Mustard,
Filaree and Globe Mallow in a shallow mud pit.

Long thin leaves of Onion Weed are hollow and slightly succulent.
After a lot of wandering around in plant keys, ranging from the tome of Arizona Flora to local garden center websites, we finally pinpointed this lovely member of the Aloe Family (Xanthorrhoeaceae) as Onion Weed (Asphodelus fistulosus).  This species is a cousin to more than a dozen species of Asphodel, all of which are native to the Mediterranean region.  Onion weed only superficially resembles true onions, and doesn't have an onion smell at all, lacking any noticeable fragrance. The rosette of long, smooth, hollow leaves does remind of onions, garlic, leeks and their relations though, which differ most distinctively in having a globe-shaped flowering head. The family includes many popular ornamental species such as Bulbine and Haworthia, as well as the Aloes. Unfortunately, this species has been dubbed a noxious weed on several continents, including North America and Australia, because it rapidly colonizes disturbed ground and is not palatable to livestock. Large roadside populations are common in southeastern Arizona.

How it got here, far from any other known population, is anybody's guess. Did it arrive on duck feet after monsoon rains created puddles in the desert? Or did it come on the treads of heavy equipment that was used to help transform this patch of desert into a parking lot? Perhaps a sentimental gardener tossed a few seeds by the roadside to see if they would grow. 

However they arrived, the plant has many intriguing ethnobotanical associations. White Asphodel (Asphodelus albus), which is a jumbo version of Onion Weed (growing to about twice times its size with larger (1.5" diam.) flowers), is a legendary plant in Homer's Odyssey and earlier Greek and Egyptian mythologies. Asphodel Meadows represent the ethereal world of the afterlife. Depending on which story you are attracted to, they are the heavenly home, or Elysian fields, of heroes and goddesses, an eternal Eden for ordinary folk, or the fate of unfortunate souls held in limbo at the gateway to the underworld.  

Asphodel plants also serve numerous uses for mortals: leaves and stalks are used to build huts by nomadic tribal people, the Tauregs, in North Africa; edible buds and roots are savored throughout the Meditteranean region; leaves are used for basketry and cheese making in Italy; abundant nectar is transformed by bees into a prized delicate honey. Asphodel also made it into the annals of Harry Potter as an ingredient in a powerful sleeping potion called Drought of Living Death. 

Whether you are fascinated by plant systematics, Greek legend or the intriguing transformations in plant geography wrought by inter-continental trade, Asphodel has something to offer. If nothing else, it's a pleasure to behold and just might become part of your personal paradise. 

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