Sprenger's Asparagus Fern

Asparagus aethiopicus

Sprenger's Asparagus Fern

Sprenger's Asparagus Fern, photographed at Yamato Scrub Natural Area, Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, in May 2021.

Despite the name, Sprenger's asparagus fern, Asparagus aethiopicus, ain't no fern. Nor does it really look like one, for that matter. It produces flowers and fruit, after all. But it is related to the table vegetable, so at least the name gets it half right.

It is found in the wild in Florida and California but it's not native to either state. Instead, it hails from South Africa, but has made its way pretty much around the globe because of its good looks. Sprenger's asparagus fern has been found in most of Florida's peninsula and in a few counties in the Panhandle.

Sprenger's is cultivated as an ornamental, and is used in hanging baskets and pots, and as a ground cover. It is also a major pest in much of the world; the Florida Exotic Plant Pest Council list it as a class I invasive, meaning it has been documented spreading in the wild and displacing native plants. State officials, however, have not banned its sale, nor have they listed it as a noxious weed.

It's managed to find its way into some of Florida's most pristine — and remote — places, including Dry Tortugas National Park.

In Australia, both Queensland and New South Wales have listed Sprenger's as a noxious weed, where it's known locally as ground asparagus. It's included in a list of Hawaii's most invasive horticultural plants.

It makes its way into the wild like many invasives, as owners decide they no longer want it and dump it along a roadside or in the garbage. From there, it spreads.

But even when contained in a garden or in an outdoor pot, Sprenger's is a threat to spread. It produces small, bright red fruit that attracts hungry birds, who disperse the plant's undigestable seeds. Once established, Sprenger's also reproduces by sending out shoots from underground stems called rhizomes.

Sprenger's can grow upright, or it can sprawl. It can be as tall as two feet and as long as six. The leaves are needle-like; the stems have short spines along their length. The plant produces small, white or pinkish flowers, which show for a few weeks each in summer or fall. It also has small tubers that store water but also make Sprenger's difficult to dig up or pull out. It's found in scrubs, coastal berms, hammocks and other, similar habitats.

Sprenger's asparagus fern is a member of Asparagaceae, the asparagus family. Other names: bushy asparagus, Sprenger asparagus or simply asparagus fern. In Australia, it's known as basket asparagus, Sprenger's fern, and emerald asparagus.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.