What they are

What are Sea Asparagus?

Sea asparagus are herbaceous plants belonging to the botanical Family Chenopodiaceae – or Amaranthaceae, according to the botanical classification – and Genus Salicornia (or Queller); the most common species is S. europaea.

This is a group of botanical species that are very similar to each other and almost indistinguishable.

Also known as glasswort, sea asparagus are real and proper succulent plants; known for their edibility, but above all for their typically savory taste, they are used in cooking as side dish or ingredient for more elaborated recipes.

From a nutritional point of view, in the context of vegetables, sea asparagus stand out for their substantial energy intake; it goes without saying that, comparing it to the average food, they are however very low in energy. Belonging to the VI fundamental food group, glasswort is an excellent source of vitamin A – retinol or equivalent (RAE, pro-vitamins A) – few soluble sugars and fibers. That said, its primary nutritional characteristic, however, is related to its hydro-saline concentration, making it a true source of water and especially valuable sea minerals – including iodine.

Not even remotely related to the common asparagus, the sea asparagus is identified as such because of its shape which can remind – not much actually, but more than the other vegetables – the Asparagus officinalis. Morphologically speaking, the glasswort is in fact quite unique in its kind; it can be recognized for its typically branched shape, apparently without leaves, fleshy and succulent. The name of glasswort instead, is the result of the union between sali- and -cornia, obviously referring first of all to the gustative characteristic and secondly to the typical horned shape. Other names of sea asparagus are: sea fennel and sea beans.

It is therefore deducible that sea asparagus have a high affinity for salty, sandy or muddy soils. They mainly occupy the sea shore, especially where water stagnations tend to form, and it is very common in salt marshes. They are distributed throughout Eurasia.

Nutritional Properties

Nutritional Properties of Sea Asparagus

Sea asparagus belongs to the VI fundamental food group – sources of vitamin A or RAE, specific minerals, water and fiber – and is particularly rich in the minerals typically dissolved in the sea.

In the context of vegetables or vegetables, glasswort has a considerable energy intake, which is around 65 kcal / 100 g. Energy is mainly provided by proteins (more than 13 g / 100 g), followed by few carbohydrates (a little more than 3 g / 100 g) and finally by lipids, which are irrelevant but of excellent quality. Peptides have an incomplete biological value, that is they do not contain all the essential amino acids compared to the human protein model, sugars are almost totally soluble (fructose) and unsaturated fatty acids with an excellent percentage of the essential polyunsaturated of the omega 3 group (alpha linolenic acid).

Sea asparagus contain dietary fibers and are free from cholesterol, lactose and gluten. They are also poor in phenylalanine, purine and histamine.

As for vitamins, as we have anticipated, they are fairly rich in retinol equivalents (vitamin A and provitamins, such as retinol equivalents or RAE). Among the most abundant minerals in sea asparagus are: sodium, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, manganese, copper and iodine – the most interesting from a nutritional point of view.


Sea asparagus in the diet

Sea asparagus is a food that lends itself to most dietary regimes.

Objectively low in calories, they have no contraindications in the low-calorie slimming diet. For the presence of omega 3, fibers and for the absence of cholesterol, just like other vegetables, they are suitable for diets against dyslipidemia – hypercholesterolemia and hypertriglyceridemia – and hyperglycemia – even in presence of diabetes mellitus type 2.

Despite being a natural source of sodium, sea asparagus can be part of the diet against sodium sensitive hypertension. This is because, as opposed to foods with added salt – for example cold cuts, potato chips in bag, seasoned cheese etc – being a vegetable, sea anemone however provides an exponentially lower level of sodium and a concentration of precious minerals worthy of note. Of course, this consideration is valid only as long as you do not use discretionary salt to season it.

The presence of fibers, probably abundant, plays a positive role on the health of bowel by preventing constipation and all the connected complications – diverticulosis, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, prolapse etc; moreover, in the long term, fibers are capable of diminishing the incidence of certain types of colon cancer. Moreover, giving satiety and positively modulating the absorption of fats and carbohydrates, they are a panacea in the therapy against overweight, hypercholesterolemia, hyperglycemia and hypertriglyceridemia. The soluble ones assume an important prebiotic role and play a positive role in maintaining the trophism of the intestinal bacterial flora – which further contributes to keeping the colon healthy.

Vitamin A is likely present in the form of retinol equivalents – e.g. carotenoids – powerful antioxidants and precursors of retinol, which maintains essential functions such as visual, reproductive, cell differentiation etc.

The water and minerals in sea asparagus help maintain hydration and prevent electrolyte imbalances – both of which are more common in athletes and the elderly. Of particular interest are the levels of iodine, iron – though not very bioavailable – and calcium. In particular, iodine is a microelement very rare in food but extremely important, because it is necessary to the correct functioning of the thyroid gland – which produces hormones that regulate cellular metabolism: T3 and T4.


How to eat sea asparagus

Sea asparagus are edible plants that have nothing to do with common asparagus. Instead, they constitute one of the most prized wild herbs, known for their savory taste and slightly spicy flavor. Excellent eaten raw or boiled, they have the primary gastronomical function of side dish; they can also be kept pickled.

The only fundamental requirement in the harvesting of sea asparagus is the choice of young plants. Harvesting is done by hand, mainly in the month of May. As the roots draw directly from sea water, the plant contains all the nutrients and minerals of this environment; therefore it is endowed with a certain sapidity and, at the same time, with a discreet thirst-quenching capacity.

Other uses of sea asparagus

In the past, the ashes of sea asparagus were used for saponification. In the production of blown glass, they were used to reduce the melting point of the material, hence the German name “Glasschmelz”.


Description of sea asparagus

Sea asparagus are herbaceous halophilous succulent plants, typically annuals, that reach 5-45 cm in height. They are green in color most of the year; only in late September, October, November and early December, the months when they become most lush, do they take on a typical red or yellowish color. Depending on the subspecies, the stem of glasswort can be more or less branched, upright or horizontal, covered or not with tiny laminae.

The flowering period of sea asparagus is from June to September. They produce from one to three flowers placed among the bracts, inconspicuous and hermaphrodite. From these they then form capsules, covered by the spongy, sack-shaped, salt-rich tepal.


Botany of sea asparagus

Sea asparagus are herbaceous type plant organisms. They also constitute a succulent, succulent plant capable of retaining high percentages of water and salt. Belonging to the Family Chenopodiaceae – or Amaranthaceae, according to the botanical classification – common sea asparagus are of the Genus Salicornia and species europaea.

Widespread mainly in the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, from Europe to Asia (China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia), that is Northern Eurasia, they reproduce in a luxuriant way in the muddy and sandy expanses of the North Sea and Baltic Sea, on the Atlantic coast and in the Mediterranean Basin.

Sea asparagus can also spread further out to sea, on the tidal shoreline, due to its high tolerance to stagnant soils and salt. Here they form so-called quellerzones, where they often share soil with Spartina anglica.

However, glasswort can also grow inland on highly saline soils. The species most easily found in these areas is Salicornia perennans, similar to European saltworts but genetically different from coastal populations.

In Austria, sea asparagus grows in the salt marshes of the Pannonian region of Burgenland, particularly in the Seewinkel, where it is considered an endangered species.

Taxonomy of sea asparagus

The succulence – characteristic of some plant types, such as aloe vera – the particular morphology and the great variability between groups of the same species have made the taxonomic classification of sea saltwort very difficult.

Until 2011, a few species and subspecies were recognized of the species S. europaea: S. Europaea subsp Europaea, S. Europaea subsp brachystacha, Salicornia procumbens, and Salicornia stricta.

However in 2012 from molecular genetic studies Kadereit et al. divided Eurasian plants into two groups of species with related subtypes:

  • Salicornia europaea species group, with two cryptospecies that are genetically distinct but morphologically similar:
    • Salicornia europaea, with three subtypes:
      • Salicornia europaea subsp. Europaea
      • Salicornia europaea subsp. Disarticulata
      • Salicornia europaea subsp. × marshallii
    • Salicornia perennans, with two subspecies:
    • Salicornia perennans
    • Salicornia perennans Altaica
  • Salicornia procumbens and persica species group:
    • Salicornia procumbens, with four subspecies:
    • Salicornia procumbens Procumbens
    • Salicornia procumbens Freitagii
    • Salicornia procumbens Pojarkovae
    • Salicornia procumbens Heterantha
  • Salicornia persica, with two subspecies:
    • Salicornia persica persica
    • Salicornia persica Iranica.

Hints on sea asparagus ecology

Sea asparagus are the first colonizers – by population density – of sandy and muddy maritime soils, preceded only by algae and submarine plants. Thanks to their strong tolerance to salt, they already grow in the shoreline area and contribute to the consolidation of suspended matter. This process, also called sedimentation, gradually leads to soil stratification.

Obligate halophytes, saltworts tolerate the highest salt content of all terrestrial herbaceous plants. They use their succulence as a strategy to dilute absorbed salts and thrive in highly concentrated mineral soils. Sodium ions bind to water that is stored in large vacuoles, preventing the accumulation of excessive intracellular salt concentrations. The life cycle ends when the salt concentration becomes excessive and the plant darkens to brown or red, eventually dying.

Seeds of sea asparagus, released in huge quantities after the organism dies, maintain a long germination capacity in the soil – up to 50 years – but require germination in fresh water, however, which occurs only after a rain or river flood. After germination, the young plant tolerates the full concentration of seawater. In spring, young seedlings develop and grow quickly. In August, during flowering, wind pollination occurs.

The seeds of glasswort, in the winter period, are an important nutritional source for various species of seabirds.