Asparagus fern is a member of the lily family, and the Asparagus genus. However, it bears no resemblance to either, and as a matter of fact, isn’t even a true fern.
This is because it sets seed rather than producing spores.
Another contradiction is that what we would typically call leaves are actually “cladodes” in the case of this plant, or flattened stem portions, while the true leaves are tiny scale-like protrusions you may not even notice.
Furthermore, this evergreen has two sides to its personality: in zone 9 to 11 gardens, it tends to grow so vigorously that it has become invasive in Florida, Hawaii, Texas, and abroad.
But as a potted houseplant, it’s a gem! Read on to learn how to cultivate some exceptional varieties of this ornamental South African beauty in your home.
How to Grow Asparagus Fern
An Evergreen Beauty Queen with Many Varieties
Cascading, feathery leaves so airy and light they have an ephemeral quality characterize the many varieties of this plant.
But beware! Beneath mature wispy layers of green are sharp spines to remind you that the dreamy texture is more of an attractive facade.
Note that this plant is also toxic to pets, and should be kept away from small children.
There are numerous species growing in the wild, but you won’t generally find them on the market, including medicinal A. racemosus, and climbing A. africanus.
I consulted the Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder to get the details on several types most likely found when houseplant-hunting, and here they are:
There are two common cultivars of the species A. densiflorus, Myeri and Sprengeri.
When shopping for these types, you are likely to come upon variations of their standard species and cultivar names, like A. densiflorus ‘Myers,’ A. densiflorus ‘Myersii,’ A. densiflorus ‘Sprengeri,’ and even A. sprengeri.
Unfortunately, corruptions of the proper botanical names abound, but don’t let them confuse you.
In addition, per the horticulturists in the Master Gardener Program Division of Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “the exact classification of this species is a bit confused, with most references to Asparagus densiflorus, but the names A. aethiopicus, A. sprengeri, and Protasparagus densiflorus are also used as well by some.”
Also known as foxtail fern, A. densiflorus ‘Myeri’ has a characteristic conical plume shape.
Each stem is densely packed with leaves resembling pine needles and stands distinctly away from the others like the fluffy tail of a fox, hence the name. White flowers may appear in the summer, followed by red berries in the fall.
Often called emerald fern, A. densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ has a mounding habit, and airy foliage that resembles small pine needles on gracefully arching stems.
Mature specimens become almost woody. They may bear white blossoms followed by red berries, depending upon gender, a characteristic that’s seldom known in advance by the purchasing consumer.
Also known as A. myriocladus, A. aethiopicus cv. ‘Myriocladus’, or A. macowanii, this is a lacy kind frequently used in cut floral arrangements.
A. retrofractus is sometimes called pom-pom asparagus fern because needle-like leaves appear in clusters sporadically along slender stems.
It’s also referred to as zig-zag fern, because of the interesting back-and-forth arrangement of its branches. White blossoms leading to orange berries that mature to black may appear.
Also known as Protasparagus setaceus or A. plumosus, A. setaceus is a twisty climber bearing the closest resemblance to a typical fern, in my opinion. Leaves like the finest pine needles adorn stems in a triangular pattern.
It grows in a shrub-like upward fashion, with layer upon layer of delicate branches. White blossoms and deep purple berries may appear.
As we’ve mentioned, asparagus fern is not a true fern. As a matter of fact, it has more in common with edible asparagus, A. officinalis. Both are herbaceous perennials that require moist, organically-rich soil, but the similarities don’t end there.
Like asparagus fern, the vegetable is also dioecious, meaning they produce both male and female plants; both types flower, but only the females set fruit.
In addition, both display nondescript scale-like “leaves,” although with asparagus fern they are actually not leaves, but cladodes, as described.
And finally, while the two species may be grown from seed, it is less challenging and more common to start both from tuberous root cuttings.
Easy, Peasy Growing Tips
Cultivation is easy once you know how. Wear gloves to avoid being nicked by thorns, and the rest is smooth sailing.
Choose a container that is sturdy, as the root system of this species is vigorous enough to burst right through a thin plastic pot. Use an organically-rich potting medium that is slightly acidic, and be sure your pot has adequate drainage holes.
During the growing season, keep the soil evenly moist, but not drenched. Fertilize lightly with an evenly balanced slow-release houseplant fertilizer if desired. In winter, growth slows down, and less water is required.
Some folks let the soil dry out between waterings, but you run the risk of causing stress that may result in leaf browning or leaf drop. However, if cladodes should turn yellow, water less often.
Provide bright, indirect or filtered sunlight. Direct sunlight may burn the leaves. Avoid drastic temperature changes and inadequate light, which may cause the cladodes to drop.
Spring is the time to evaluate your plant. If you find you need to trim away some yellow or brown needles, or a stem that is throwing everything off balance, prune at the base of a stem, not at the tip or mid-section. Periodic pruning of “old wood” keeps stems youthful and fresh.
Then, decide if you need to repot. While some argue that asparagus fern likes to be potbound, I recommend repotting when it becomes so rootbound it begins to burst through its pot.
Choose a container that is a few inches wider and taller than the diameter of the rootstock to allow for room to grow. You may also ease your rootbound plant out of the pot and divide it before repotting it. The divisions make nice gifts for friends.
If you decide not to repot, refresh the old pot with the addition of some fresh potting medium worked into the existing soil.
As the growing season gets underway, begin to fertilize once a month. Discontinue application as fall approaches and growth slows down.
Plants grown outdoors are treated similarly. Spring is the time to prune and begin fertilizing. Work some organically-rich compost into your soil, and be vigilant about maintaining even moisture throughout the growing season.
Plants have a tendency to become invasive outdoors, so divide bed and border plants as needed. As an alternative to in-ground planting, consider setting pots of asparagus fern out among specimen plantings to contain their spread.
If you’re lucky enough to have blossoms, watch for berries so you can save the seeds to start new plants. When the berries soften and begin to decay, pick them and remove the seeds. Be sure to wear gloves, and keep the harvested berries and seeds away from children and pets.
Wipe off all the berry pulp and allow the seeds to dry thoroughly in a cool, dry location. When you’re ready to plant your seeds, scrape them gently with sandpaper and soak overnight before sowing.
Propagating by this method may be challenging, as there are only one to three seeds per berry, and they don’t always germinate.
It’s always a nice surprise to find berries. I’ve had a few on indoor plants. And while there’s no visual way of determining if you have a female plant when you purchase it, you can provide the best possible conditions for fruiting with abundant sunlight and a consistently moist environment.
Outdoor plants in warm climates are the most likely to set fruit, and may produce clusters of red or orange berries.
Most varieties that grow to maturity reach at least two feet in length, but some types may grow several more feet under optimal conditions, rewarding you with 10 or more years of lush growth.
Barring temperature extremes, and with proper light and water, you should experience few disease or pest issues.
Stress from over- or under-watering may create the right environment for aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, and whiteflies to infest the plants.
Use an insecticidal soap or neem oil to remedy the situation, and don’t hesitate to fertilize lightly and prune hard for a fresh start.
Where to Buy
Now that you’re acquainted with varieties and cultivation, let’s shop!
Please keep in mind that vigorously growing asparagus ferns planted outdoors may become invasive in certain climates. Also, most won’t perform well in temperatures below freezing.
In addition, we never know if we’re getting a male or female plant, and while both may produce blossoms under optimal conditions, only females set fruit.
A. densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ is available from Amazon in six-inch hanging baskets. Cascading stems of delicate, needle-like leaves sometimes produce white or pink flowers, and produce green berries that turn red in winter.
A. sprengeri seeds are available from True Leaf Market. Each package contains 1,000 seeds. Delicately arching stems may produce white or pink blossoms, and berries that turn from green to red in winter.
A. densiflorus ‘Myers’ is available from Nature Hills Nursery. Choose a 1-quart or #1 container (2.3-3.7 quarts). Fuzzy plumes adorn sturdy stems that reach two feet tall at maturity.
A. densiflorus ‘Myerii’ seeds are available from True Leaf Market. Each package contains 100 seeds. Texturally-rich foxtails top out at two feet tall.
A. plumosus is available from Amazon in four-inch pots. Feathery stems make graceful arches of evergreen.
A. plumosa ‘Nanus’ seeds are available from True Leaf Market. Each package contains 100 seeds. This variety is a more compact form that makes an eye-catching ground cover.
A. macowanii is available from Amazon in six-inch pots. Plants may produce white flowers and achieve a mature height of two feet.
Beauty and Braun
It’s time you added an asparagus fern or two to your indoor decor. Despite its delicate appearance, it’s a powerhouse plant that provides years of vigorous growth and textural appeal.
Display it in hanging containers for a cascading effect, or let it trail across a shelf or accent table. No matter where or how you feature this sturdy, low-maintenance ornamental specimen, it is sure to delight you and visitors to your home with its gentle beauty.
For more indoor gardening ideas, try these articles:
- The Best Tips for Cultivating Showy Garden Croton Indoors
- The Top 11 Mushroom Growing Kits for Home Gardeners
- How to Become a Succulent Pro
Photos by Allison Sidhu, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via True Leaf Market, Nature Hills Nursery, Hirt’s Gardens, and Florida Foliage. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!