Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’
Asparagus densiflorus (Kunth) Jessop ‘Meyersii’
Common names: cat's tail asparagus (Eng.); katstert (Afr.); also known under a few variations or misspelling of its cultivar name, such as: ‘Myers’, Asparagus meyers, Asparagus meyeri. It is also known as the asparagus fern, although it is not actually a fern at all.
Striking ornamental perennial with compactly clustered foliage on arched fronds resembling cat’s tails. Tiny, white, fragrant, star-like flowers are followed by showy red berries, which are very attractive to birds.
Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’ is a neat, upright plant, with a height of between 300–600 mm and a width of approximately 400–700 mm. The plants have a rhizomatous root system with long fibrous roots bearing oval, turgid, creamy-beige tubers all along the side roots, which assist the plant in surviving long periods of drought. The evergreen, almost equally long stems of this plant, emerge at a central point directly from the ground, remaining close together, often become woody and spiny at their bases as they mature.
Gracefully erect, the cylindrical branches which arch slightly at their tip (thus resembling a cat’s tail), are densely covered in bright green, short, needle-like leaves, that give this plant an attractive delicately textured appearance. What appear to be the ‘leaves’ are actually modified stems called cladodes (phylloclades). These linear, flattened structures occur in groups of 3 or more at a node and give the plants its compact shape and form. The real leaves are actually heavily-reduced, bract-like spurs, which can harden to form the characteristic spines found in most species of Asparagus.
Concealed within this foliage and borne in the branch axils close along the stems, very small and sweetly fragrant flowers occur in summer, from November to April. They are star-shaped and glossy, white, sometimes with a light pink tinge, and often prettily displaying their yellow-orange anthers. The fruits appear from March, often while the plant is still flowering, and are spherical berries, 10 mm in diameter. They are green at first, slowly ripening to a showy, bright orange-red, each containing a single, rounded, hard, black seed.
According to the Red list of South African plants, Asparagus densiflorus is listed with the conservation status of Least Concern (LC).
Distribution and habitat
Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’ comes from the Eastern Cape.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus Asparagus derives its name from the Greek word Asparagos, the name given to the cultivated edible asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) and is possibly derived from a- meaning ‘intensive’ and sparassa meaning ‘to tear’, referring to the sharp spines of many species, or possibly from spargan meaning ‘to swell or sprout’, referring to the plant’s root tubers that are swollen and fibrous, from which they can resprout. The species name of densiflorus refers to the way the small flowers are densely packed along the stem of the plant.
The cultivar ‘Meyersii’ is a trade name, after the nurseryman Meyers from East London, who introduced this compact, erect form into horticulture. These plants originate from a strain of naturally compact wild plants found in the Eastern Cape, which showed a inclination to shorten their branches and so, through selection, were encouraged to form an enhanced cylindrical shape, where the cladodes are smaller and the raceme is condensed to a few flowers.
Asparagus is the largest genus within the family Asparagaceae and consists of approximately 200 species, which are distributed throughout Africa, Asia, Europe; introduced in Australia. Currently in southern Africa there are 86 recognized species of Asparagus, which can be herbaceous perennials, woody shrubs or climbers. They are widespread and common but are not often collected because of the short flowering period and the presence of spines that can cause the experience of handing the plants to be very painful. Asparagus densiflorus has many lovely cultivars, the most noteworthy of which are A. densiflorus ‘Cwebe’, A. densiflorus ‘Flagstaff’ and A. densiflorus ‘Mazeppa’.
All Asparagus species have the identifying characteristic of the modified photosynthetic stems called cladodes, and many species have large, sharp spines that cause pain to humans and animals. Asparagus densiflorus cultivars have only very small, insignificant short spines, making them all excellent garden subjects.
When in bloom, the sweetly scented flowers attract pollinating insects, which in turn attract insectivorous birds and reptiles. The berries are eaten by a wide variety of fruit-eating birds, who then disperse the seeds.
The fibrous roots and their swollen tubers store water and nutrients, and allow the plant to survive periods of drought and also enable them to resprout if the stems are damaged in any way.
A. densiflorus is a declared invasive weed in Australia and has the potential to become invasive in other countries in areas with a similar microclimate, to where it occurs naturally in South Africa.
Asparagus species are popular ornamental plants for gardens and landscaping, due to being hardy and waterwise, but also for their structural use with their outstanding textural and emerald-green foliage. Asparagus stems are extremely popular in floristry, used predominantly as filler foliage, with Asparagus plumosus being the most widely used.
Some of the roots of Asparagus species are used traditionally as vegetables, and many are used for medicinal purposes. The berries can cause low toxicity if eaten by humans and other mammals, or if crushed, they cause a minor skin irritation that luckily does not last for very long.
Growing Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’
An extremely versatile and hardy evergreen perennial with decorative, finely textured foliage and bright berries, that can be used outdoors in the garden massed as a groundcover, as a feature plant or in containers/pots, even in retaining walls; also on patios and as houseplants indoors. An easy plant for beginner gardeners, as the cat’s tail asparagus is easy to grow and does not require any special care. In mixed borders, as a visual design element, the beautiful emerald-green foliage is used for textural contrast against plants having larger leaves or broader-textured foliage, and as the foliage gives a tropical feel forest, the cat’s tail asparagus looks perfect used under trees, and for the same reason is also very suitable to being used to complement water features, such as ponds. The plants combine well with other shade-loving plants, such as species of Streptocarpus, Chlorophytum, Plectranthus , Scadoxus, Clivia. and Hypoestes. The recommended planting distance is 30 cm apart, depending on the density effect of the design one wants to achieve.
The cat’s tail asparagus grows in any soil and will tolerate some drought and periods of neglect once established, but does look much better in well-drained soil which is rich in organic matter and is watered moderately. The plant’s root system has thick tuberous roots with swollen storage, which greatly enhance their ability to be waterwise.
It looks best when grown in full/dappled/light or semi-shade, but can grow in the sun, although it will then only thrive if kept well watered and fed regularly with a slow release fertilizer. Plants grown in full sun, are more compact and dense, than those grown in shade. If grown outdoors in shade or semi shade in relatively fertile soil, Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’ will not require additional fertilizer, as they are not very hungry plants in general, but should they not be growing strongly or have a slightly yellow tinge to the foliage, then the addition of compost around the plants, or the use of an organic fertilizer is recommended, to replenish the natural nutrients in the soil.
If grown indoors, select a position with filtered light, no direct light, and each time Asparagus densiflorus is watered, do so thoroughly, then allow the soil to dry out between watering, and water even less in winter, as the plant’s thick, tuberous roots store water and sodden soil will cause the roots to rot. Asparagus densiflorus can be a sensitive plant indoors and will quickly shed its ‘leaves’ if over watered or placed in insufficient light. Indoor plants can seasonally be moved outdoors (bringing them back inside before winter/frost), but should be allowed to slowly become accustomed to the stronger light outside, before being moved to a full sun position. Grown indoors, Asparagus densiflorus will do best if fed with a liquid fertilizer monthly during the flowering period, November to April. Preferably do not feed these plants during the winter rest period.
This plant is low maintenance, as it only requires dead fronds or the occasional old, yellowed stem to be cut away. To rejuvenate the plants, they can be cut back hard, right at the base, after flowering in May or in early spring, in September, before new growth begins. The same can be done if fronds are damaged/broken or ‘burnt’ by frost. Afterwards a mulch of thick compost can be spread around the plant’s base to provide the food support needed for replenishing lost top growth. The plants will produce new healthier, greener foliage after pruning.
The plants are generally and naturally pest and disease free; mites might be the only occasional problem. Leave the plants to outgrow the infestation, or wait for a natural predator to come along and assist. If the damage starts to become substantial, then use a mitcicide, but follow the application and repeat instructions of the product very closely.
Asparagus densiflorus ‘Meyersii’ is most easily and successfully propagated from seed. Division is not as successful in this cultivar, as it is in others. Collect fully ripened fruit, then remove the seeds from the fleshy berries and sow fresh for best results in a suitable sowing medium, keep in a warm spot in an area that is protected from the wind, in light shade, ensure the soil stays moist, but not wet by watering as required. The seeds will germinate in 4 to 6 weeks, the growth from seeds is slow but steady. Fertilize with a liquid fertilizer at regular intervals to ensure flourishing and plentiful growth during the growing-on stage. Prick out seedlings when well grown and repot into a compost-rich, loamy medium. Grow on in light shade, and water regularly until roots are visible growing out the growing container’s drainage holes. Plants can then be planted out into a larger pot or directly into the garden.
- Flora of southern Africa, accessed via POSA online, http://posa.sanbi.org/flora/results_browse.php?src=FloraSA&taxon=genno=728,spno=36
- Joffe, P. 2001. Creative gardening with indigenous plants. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
- Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seed plants of southern Africa: families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Pienaar, K. 1984. The South African what flower is that? Struik, Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers Kwazulu-Natal and the eastern region. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban.
- Powrie, F. 1998. Grow South African Plants. A gardener's companion to indigenous plants. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Ground Cover, Perennial
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer, Autumn
Flower colour: White, Pink
Aspect: Full Sun, Shade, Morning Sun (Semi Shade), Afternoon Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy