Asparagus Fern (Asparagus Species)

by Cynthia W. Mueller
Galveston County Master Gardener

There is more interest now than ever before in drought-resistant plants capable of thriving in containers on the patio or in the dry landscape without much in the way of water or attention.

Tough candidates for top honors are the Asparagus ferns (Asparagus spp) – actually members of the lily family. A similarity in looks to the fine, needle-like leaflets of many common ferns gives the ‘asparagus ferns’ their name. On many plants there will be the extra bonus of first green, then bright red berries during the fall season.

Foxtail fern
Choose heat- & drought-resistant asparagus ferns for Texas plantings

No longer just a houseplant for the front porch, these are actually excellent plants for coastal situations or for dry sun- or light-shade xeriscape plantings. Well grown clumps of Asparagus densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ under palms can create an excellent groundcover effect in coastal areas, or for easy-care, low-water flower beds through Zone 8.

‘Sprengeri’ has a mounding, fluffy appearance of loose-needled fronds two to three feet in length which lend themselves to flower arrangements. The ‘Foxtail’ variety (densiflorus ‘Myers’) has long, tapering cones of tightly packed needles in dense rosettes that are partially upright, giving a very structural and interesting effect.

In general asparagus ferns are not bothered by insects or disease. The only labor associated with asparagus fern might be an annual trimming back of old fronds when spring arrives. For larger plantings this can be done with a string trimmer.

Use these versatile plants trailing over the edge of retaining walls or larger containers, either alone or interplanted with showy annuals for seasonal color. Take care that asparagus fern does not overwhelm associated plants in this situation. After several years, the mass of roots and woody storage organs, which can be 3 to 6” long and at least an inch in diameter may completely fill the container and retard drainage.

Other Species: Asparagus plumosus, also called “florist's fern”, has long, twining stems with flat fern-like structures covered with tiny, feathery “leaves” which are actually modified stems. It’s the familiar ferny stuff often included in florist’s bouquets. It’s easily grown in a protected place throughout Zone 8. Traditionally gardeners used to keep a plant of florist’s fern handy to weave into cut flower arrangements. Give this twiner something to climb on, and trim away the older canes occasionally to keep its greenery fresh.

Foxtail fern, or A. sprengeri ‘Myers’ makes a distinct appearance in the landscape or container. Each elongated cone-shaped, partially upright frond is two to three feet in length, and packed with subbranched rosettes of tiny green needles. These also make excellent cut material for arrangements.

In addition to these well known varieties a number of other species can be found in specialty catalogs. For best results, use Google to identify sources, or consult a good online catalog such as the Plant Delights Nursery website (www.http://plantdelights.com) for good visual references.

A. cochinchinensis creates a soft, fluffy mass of greenery reminiscient of a gently weeping grass clump and is hardy at least to Zone 6.

A. denudatatus is quite different, having almost a tangle of bare stems with few needles, which can be quite a striking contrast to the usual material in the garden. It is hardy through Zone 7.

Asparagus officinalis pseudoscaber most closely resembles its cousin the garden asparagus. It has a fine screen of upright, slender stalks with finely cut see-through foliage dotted with berries, hardy from zones 4-9.

A. verticilliatus is capable of climbing to 15 feet, then weeping downward. It has the added benefit of colored berries up to l/2 inch in diameter and is hardy to Zone 3, with care.