It is a typically ornamental and shade-loving plant native to South Africa, related to the common asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), a species that has been cultivated as a vegetable for the consumption of its young shoots, and has also been used as a medicinal plant. Asparagus is the Latin name for asparagus, which in turn comes from the Greek sparassein, "to tear". The specific aethiopicus is a geographical epithet that strictly speaking refers to its location in "Ethiopia", although it is common for all African origins. It is often mistaken for a fern because of its appearance, but it does have small flowers (it is an angiosperm).
It has a drooping habit with arching stems and rigid leaves (cladodes), and very small, fragrant flowers, although more evident than in other species of the genus. They later give rise to the fruit, in the form of red berries.
Several wild species of Asparagus, in particular wild asparagus, are harvested in the Mediterranean region for the same purpose. Species also exist in warm regions of America: Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1517-1587), humanist scholar and physician to King Philip II, recorded a 'fine asparagus' in Mexico for its astringent properties. Hernández led an important expedition to America to investigate the medicinal properties of the plants of the New World. He was to write an account of the plants of medicinal use and was to report on how to cultivate them. In turn, Hernández was to send to the Iberian Peninsula those novel plants that did not exist, as well as to write a Natural History of that territory. This expedition, born of Philip II's desire to learn about and exploit the resources of his dominions, can be considered the first scientific expedition to America, a prologue to those that the Bourbon monarchs would finance in the 18th century in the wake of the Enlightenment.