Why Asparagus ferns are not ferns

Published on May 9th 2021
A close up of some grass
Asparagus ferns are commonly found dangling from hanging baskets, growing in containers, or even on sloping garden walls. In South Africa, we have five beautiful indigenous Asparagus ferns commonly found growing in gardens and stocked in local nurseries, namely, Asparagus plumosus, Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri', Asparagus densiflorus 'Meyersii' (Cats Tail), Asparagus densiflorus 'Cwebe', and Asparagus densiflorus 'Mazeppa'.

What's in the name?

To explain the species epithet 'densiflorus' – these indigenous plants have many tiny little flowers i.e. densely flowered. And while we are on the topic of names, although called ferns, they are not ferns. Rather, they are ‘fern-like' in that they have feathery fronds.

Asparagus ferns are so easy to grow!

Besides this fact, they are all exceptionally easy to grow as they have underground storage tubers, making them waterwise, and they are disease resistant. An additional plus is their tolerance of different light conditions, from full to part shade, and even sunny positions (except for Cwebe, which only likes shade).
Pick the right one for your garden:

Common Asparagus fern (Asparagus plumosus)

Asparagus plumosus has the finest leaves, looks feathery (like a ‘plume’), and has a vine-like trailing or climbing growth. The best way to connect with this plant, according to Dr Katie Cooper, is to touch it. Its feathery leaves invite you to stroke them, so do so. Its repetitive pattern of growth is fascinating, so look at it, enjoy it for a minute or so. And for years to come – these plants can live a long time!
Asparagus plumosus can be planted in a normal pot and vigorously pruned to keep it smaller. Otherwise, it is a good candidate for a hanging basket, hung up in a pot with a macrame hanger, or in a kokedama. Its long tendrils are fascinating!
A vase of flowers on a tree
Asparagus plumosus
A mature plant can be large and may need a large ceramic pot and trellis to show it off to its best.

Sprenger's Asparagus Fern (Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri')

Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri', or the Emerald Fern, has an elegant draping growth and is perfect for hanging baskets, kokedama, or macrame hanger displays. They grow well in shade, semi-shade or sun. Older leaves go yellow and shed copiously, so trim off the leaves as soon as they start yellowing. The plant can be sensitive to air conditioning. If it seems unhappy, mist it or move it. But generally, they are rewardingly easy plants.
A close up of a plant
Asparagus 'Sprengeri'

Asparagus 'Mazeppa'

Although similar to Asparagus 'Sprengeri', Asparagus 'Mazeppa' is a more compact plant, growing shorter draping fronds. This cultivar makes for the perfect ground cover, especially in areas of full sun.
A plant in a pot
Asparagus 'Mazeppa'

Cat's Tail Asparagus (Asparagus densiflorus 'Meyersii')

Asparagus densiflorus 'Meyersii' or Cat’s Tail has an upright growth. Although very different to the Asparagus plumosus, it also has a repeating pattern of growth that is fascinating to study. Each little leaf section is a microcosm of the whole frond – Dr Katie Cooper says these fractal patterns are calming to study. It only droops a little as a mature plant, rather plant it in an upright pot, or display it in a kokedama. It grows well in semi-shade to sun. And yes, this one can also be stroked: clasp your hand around a frond and stroke it from the bottom to the tip – no wonder it is called ‘Cat’s Tail’!

Cwebe Asparagus (Asparagus densiflorus'Cwebe')

A lesser-known Asparagus densiflorus variety is 'Cwebe', which was discovered growing in the Cwebe Reserve in the Eastern Cape. It is different to both 'Sprengeri' and 'Myersii' in that it has a slightly larger, soft leaf, which gives a completely different look. As it is shade-loving, it is suitable for indoors, although as yet little grown for indoors, and mainly used outdoors in plantscaping. But with its soft growth and its resistance to pests and diseases, it is definitely worth using indoors.
A close up of a plant
Asparagus 'Cwebe'
PlantZAfrica (as accessed 19/02/2021)
PlantZAfrica (as accessed 19/02/2021)
wildflowernursery.co.za (as accessed 19/02/2021)
Cooper, K: 2020. Plant Therapy - How an indoor green oasis can improve your mental and emotional wellbeing. London. Hardie Grant Publishing.
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