Asparagus densiflorus is an extremely versatile perennial,
evergreen plant that can be used as a groundcover or container plant
in full sun or light shade. Although there are many striking and
beautiful South African Asparagus species, most of them have
horrendously large or sharp spines. A. densiflorus has only
very small, hardly noticeable spines and is an excellent garden
Asparagus densiflorus is a scrambling, slightly woody plant
with upright or trailing branches up to 1 m long. The appearance
of the plants varies enormously and has led to the naming of a large
number of cultivars or forms. The best known forms belong to the
so-called emerald ferns of the Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri'
group. These plants form large cushions with long, arching stems
more or less densely covered with dark green, needle-like leaves.
The plants of this group can be used as groundcovers in shade as
well as in full sun, or in large containers or hanging baskets.
The cultivars 'Cwebe' and 'Meyersii' form more upright plants, particularly
'Meyersii', which looks very different, with its compact cat's tail-like
Asparagus densiflorus flowers are small, most often white
or pale pink and are very sweetly scented. The flowers are not very
noticeable, as they are half hidden by the foliage and do not last
long. They flower for about two weeks during the summer season,
in South Africa as well as in the Northern Hemisphere. The flowering
of the plants can be rather erratic, with the plants having a good
flowering year on average only once every three years. The small
flowers are followed by showy bright red berries, which each have
one large black seed in them. The berries are attractive to birds
and may be spread by them.
Asparagus densiflorus grows in the coastal areas in the southeastern
Cape and KwaZulu-Natal in a wide range of habitats, from coastal
dunes to open rocky places or woods. It can be grown in USDA zones
9-10 and is hardy to -7°C (20°F).
Name and history
The genus name of Asparagus is thought to be derived from
the Greek Asparagos for the cultivated asparagus and is possibly
derived from 'a-'- intensive and sparassa - to tear, referring
to the sharp spines of many species. The species name of densiflorus
refers to the way the small flowers are densely packed along the
stem of the plant.
The earliest record of a South African asparagus is an illustration
from 1686, while plants from the 'Sprengeri' group were introduced
into cultivation as early as 1888. They are now grown all over the
world and have proved hardy, drought tolerant and even fairly salt
tolerant plants which can be used as garden plants or for cut foliage.
The South African Asparagus species are related to the European
Asparagus species and have a botanically very interesting structure.
The so-called leaves are not true leaves at all, but are actually
cladodes and are thought to be modified branches, while the spines
are formed from modified branches or from modified leaves.
There are about 69 species in southern Africa, possibly 30 to 40
in tropical Africa and also some in Asia. They are widespread and
common but are not often collected because of the short flowering
period and the presence of the spines.
One other South African species that is widely cultivated is
Asparagus plumosus, which has flat, feathery short stems and
used to be found in almost every bunch of cut flowers as foliage.
Some of the South African Asparagus species are used as vegetables
or for medicinal purposes. The berries cause only low toxicity if
eaten. When the berries are crushed, skin irritation is minor, or
lasting only for a few minutes.
Growing Asparagus densiflorus
Asparagus densiflorus grows in most soils and is fairly
drought tolerant, but does much better in soil which is rich in
organic matter and is watered regularly. To rejuvenate the plants,
they can be cut back after flowering. At this time a thick mulch
of compost can be spread around the plants.
densiflorus 'Sprengeri', 'Flagstaff' and 'Mazeppa' are excellent
as a groundcover, especially in full sun. 'Sprengeri and 'Flagstaff'
form long, arching branches of up to 1 m in length and can reach
a height of 60 cm, while 'Mazeppa' forms a very compact dark green
mat and looks very attractive in containers as well as on sloping
When these three cultivars are grown in shade they become long-stemmed
with a wide distribution of the leaves. When grown in full sun,
the plants become much more sturdy and dense.
Asparagus densiflorus 'Meyersii' is known under a variety
of names, i.e. 'Myers', Asparagus meyers, Asparagus meyeri,
with the common names of cat's tail asparagus or foxtail fern. It
grows to a height of 60 cm with long, soft branches arising from
a central point to form a very ornamental plant, looking equally
good in a container, as a feature plant or in a mass planting. It
looks best when grown in shade or semi-shade.
densiflorus 'Cwebe' is a more upright version of 'Sprengeri'
with very graceful, upright, arching fronds with long needle-like
leaves. The young fronds are a very attractive copper colour. This
is the only cultivar that does not like sun and should be grown
in light shade.
The plants have extensive root systems with fairly large tubers,
which are used in nature to provide food during long periods of
drought in summer. They can be readily propagated by separating
the tubers in fairly large clumps, or by sowing the seed in spring
or early summer. The seed should be removed from the fleshy berries,
placed in a suitable sowing medium in a warm spot or with bottom
heating of about 25°C and kept moist.
FELLINGHAM, A.C. 1955. New combinations and a complete list of Asparagus
species in southern Africa (Asparagaceae). Bothalia 24: 205-209.
GREEN, P.S. 1986. The correct name for Asparagus sprengeri. The
Plantsman 7, 4: 249, 250.
JESSOP, J.P. 1966. The genus Asparagus in southern Africa. Bothalia
1998. Wild gardens: new releases from NBI (Asparagus cultivars).
Veld & Flora 84: 67.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.