What’s Not an Asparagus and Not a Fern? Asparagus Fern!

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.

Vertical closeup image of asparagus fern plants with small red berries, growing in earth topped with brown wood chip mulch, printed with green and white text.

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.

Vertical closeup image of a feathery asparagus fern in bright sunlight.

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.

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.

Vertical image of asparagus ferns, succulents, and other plants in a garden bed, with a tree trunk in the background.
Photo by Allison Sidhu.

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.

Closeup horizontal image of white asparagus fern flowers growing on branches with green needles, on a brown background.
A. densiflorus ‘Sprengeri’ with white flowers and brown spines.

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:

A. Densiflorus

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.

Vertical closely cropped image of a vibrant green asparagus fern plant, with gray cement blocks beneath it.
Foxtail plumes of A. densiflorus ‘Myeri.’

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.

A potted light green asparagus fern in a gray metal container, on a white pedestal with a decorative gray star on the front, on a light gray background.
Mounding A. densiflorus ‘Sprengeri.’

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.

A. Retrofractus

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.

Closeup overhead shot of a ming fern, with a red brick background.
Pom-pom clusters of A. retrofractus.

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.

A. Setaceus

Also known as Protasparagus setaceus or A. plumosusA. 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.

Vertical image of a potted asparagus fern in a blue and white ceramic pot, on a black background, lit from above.
Feathery layers of A. setaceus.

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.

Vertical image of a small asparagus fern in a blue ceramic container, on a brown wood surface with a gray background.
Compactly pruned A. densiflorus ‘Sprengeri.’

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.

Horizontal closeup image of a rootbound asparagus fern planted in a mixture of potting soil and small stones, with some crumbly soil on the work surface, next to a black container, on a white striped background.
Repotting a vigorous grower.

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.

Vertical image of a row of green foxtail ferns growing in a strip of soil topped with wood mulch, between a sidewalk to the left and an area of crushed stone to the right.
Photo by Allison Sidhu.

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.

Horizontal image of two large foxtail fern plants, in a garden bed in the southwestern United States with succulents and other plants.
Photo by Allison Sidhu.

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.

Horizontal image of asparagus ferns planted in a garden bed topped with brown wood mulch, with small red berries on some of the stalks.
Photo by Allison Sidhu.

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’ 6-Inch Hanging Baskets

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.

Square closeup image of green, feathery A. sprengeri.

1,000 A. Sprengeri Seeds

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.

Square image of a foxtail fern in a stone planter with a pedestal, growing in a garden in mottled sunlight.

A. Densiflorus ‘Myers’ Live Plants in Containers

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.

Square image of A. densiflorus 'Meyerii' planted in the ground with pebbles and a stone wall behind it.

100 A. Densiflorus ‘Myerii’ Seeds

A. densiflorus ‘Myerii’ seeds are available from True Leaf Market. Each package contains 100 seeds. Texturally-rich foxtails top out at two feet tall.

P. Setaceus in 4-Inch Containers

A. plumosus is available from Amazon in four-inch pots. Feathery stems make graceful arches of evergreen.

Square image of feathery light green A. plumosa 'Nanus'.

100 A. Plumosa ‘Nanus’ Seeds

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 in 6-Inch Pots

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.

A pile of two pillows, a faux fur area rug, a white chair with a gray throw blanket draped over it, a peach-colored pedestal with a light green asparagus fern in a decorative gold planter on top, with two small frosted glass and metal lanterns with candles inside in front of it, with a brownish orange wood floor and a white wall with white baseboard in the background.
Delightfully fresh decor.

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:

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!

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Diane
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Diane

Can this Fern be divided?

Allison Sidhu
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Allison Sidhu

Yes, absolutely! Asparagus ferns like to be a bit pot-bound, but nonetheless, they can quickly outgrow their containers. It’s a good idea to divide as needed every couple of years, to promote the health of the plant. It may be difficult to tease the extensive root system apart. Wearing gloves, unpot the plant, gently shake off as much dirt as you can, and unwind the roots with your fingers. You can use a clean gardening knife if you have to, just make sure each portion that you divide maintains some intact roots. Don’t worry too much about any that are… Read more »