Least Favorite Plant: Asparagus Fern (Asparagus setaceus)

Today, a new feature on the blog: least favorite plants. I’ve always thought that it’s more fun to read a bad review than a glowing one, so why not extend the concept to the plant world? But we’re not going to rant about “weeds”, which Ralph Waldo Emerson defined as, “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” As active foragers we’ve found virtues in what most people think of as weeds, plants like broadleaf plantain and stinging nettles. Instead we’ll focus our horticultural wrath elsewhere.

Asparagus Fern (Asparagus setaceus) is the scourge of my backyard gardening existence and a plant many will recognize from floral arrangements. The bozos who owned our house before us planted one of these nasty things underneath the avocado tree. It entangles itself through the branches of the tree, winding it’s way upwards as much as ten feet in a season. It’s impossible to pull out of the ground and its sharp thorns make thick gloves essential when attempting to beat it back. When I saw a vendor at a farmer’s market selling potted Asparagus setaceus, I felt like I was witnessing a crack dealer in an elementary school lunchroom. As a houseplant it’s probably fine, but in our climate where it can grow outside you should keep this out of the hands of neophyte gardeners.

Asparagus Fern ain’t a fern but it is a relative of asparagus. The shoots may or may not be edible depending on who you talk to. Even if you could eat the shoots, you would have the world’s smallest side dish. Breed a one inch tall pig and you could make tiny pork chops to go along with your buttered Asparagus setaceus.

Thankfully for most of the readers of this blog, Asparagus setaceus is not cold hardy. It’s originally from South Africa which has an identical climate to LA, meaning this house plant can easily escape here and wreak havoc amongst the palm trees and smog.

Now, what rogue state can I get to carpet bomb my Asparagus Fern patch?

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  1. I’m totally laughing with you, not at you!

    I have the eternal battle with Phragmites Australis, Japanese honeysuckle (may the person who planted this be plagued with boils) and Multi-flora rose. I’ve actually got a 6 inch backwards C scar on my leg from that sucker.

    ::sigh:: It is a war of attrition, isn’t it?

  2. Least favorite plant: Toxicodendron. F*** YOU, TOXICODENDRON! Other enmities pale in comparison.

  3. We have vinca (or as we call it, myrtle) taking over our yard and the neighboring greenbelt. I feel the same way you do when I see it for sale in the garden stores. I have filled so many yard waste cans for the city to haul off that I have lost count. I am afraid to put it in the compost for fear it will sneak back out into my yard!

  4. Vinca constantly threatens our yard from the borders as well, and it’s hard to get rid of. But what’s really bothering me it the castor bean plant just outside of our back yard. There are seedlings coming up constantly throughout our garden.

  5. These things are everywhere in Florida too. Menacing, Choking, thorny bastards. I am in eternal battle with them. They are my mortal enemies. I loathe the assholes who brought them here. If I could go back in time and eradicate th e buffoons who thought this was a good idea…

  6. Ha! This is a close second to my most dreaded plant, the manroot vine.

    The first time I encountered the asparagus fern I saw some tendrils creeping up out of a bed of sword ferns. I nonchalantly grabbed the base of one and pulled which absolutely shredded the outside edge of my palm. That was the moment it was added to my “list”.

    Looking forward to future enstalments.

  7. I didn’t know that this was a real relative of the asparagus. I hope that translates into them thriving in similar conditions, since I planted a patch of 24 crowns of edible asparagus about 10 yards from an infestation the BAD kind growing under deodars. If the tenacity of the bad kind is any indication, I will have enough edible asparagus in a few years to feed an army, which I will need to hire to eradicate the former.

  8. I also wage war against Japanese honeysuckle – the house we are renting was neglected for years and there was a patch of it growing over a cypress and who knows what else buried underneath. It was the size of a camping trailer, i must have hacked it back at least 5 feet. I found patio furniture and a large terra-cotta chiminea buried in it.

    Now I am fighting with a $%#@& plant whose name I don’t even know. It vines quickly, and the vines root themselves as well. I just keep watering one area so I can keep digging up the shoots – eventually I’ll get them all, right? right? sigh.

  9. Gloria,

    Sadly Asparagus setaceus is far more hardy than cultivated asparagus. I planted asparagus and it’s just poking along despite much fertilizer and careful attention. Meanwhile Asparagus setaceus spreads its thorny vines in the backyard unassisted.

  10. Our yard has been stricken with horsetail. I had to laugh when I saw pots of artificial horsetail at Restoration Hardware. Who buys that?

  11. i concur! another downside to the sucker: it’s poisonous to dogs (link to aspca site via a tinyurl: http://tinyurl.com/dar7v5).

    to protect my puppy, who was completely fascinated by them, i removed all of them from my garden. or so i thought. much to my dismay — but to the delight of the pup — little fernlets are popping up :

  12. Candidates for future columns:

    Equisetum hyemale – horsetail, shave grass… used medicinally in for small cuts and abrasions, this underground runner is more persistent and trouble than bamboo. I’ve seen it pop bricks up! It is one of the nastiest California natives to ever enter the trade.
    Ipomoea alba – moonflower… not only spreading by copious seeds, it also spreads joyfully via underground runners – like Bermuda grass, but the runners are far more brittle, meaning, the more you dig, the more you plant. Grrrrrrr…
    Nothoscordum gracile – false garlic… if you’ve dealt with this successfully, there’s a fortune waiting for you. If you’ve not dealt with this at all, go play the lottery for you are luckier than I! It ruins gardens.

    We deal with all three of these (and nut grass and Bermuda grass) on a daily basis at The Learning Garden. But… think of the philosophical thoughts that one gets through hours of weeding…. 🙂


  13. Thanks so much for identifying this pest! There’s tons of it in the garden I recently inherited and I hadn’t been able to find anyone who knew what it was.

    I do have success pulling up the roots using a claw-like garden tool. It’s on a long handle with four prongs bent into a claw. I don’t know what that’s called, but I use it to first loosen the soil at the base of a shoot, then I get the claw good and caught in the root mass below the soil, then HEAVE. Work over soil more to loosen as needed.

  14. Yeah, but has anybody come up with a decent way to really eradicate Asparagus fern? I’ve dug it up and dug it up and dug it up but it keeps coming back – there’s a huge underground network of the little tubules that it sprouts from. Trying to figure out if I can use round-up to kill it but I don’t want to hurt the palm tree that it’s growing around (and through). Any other advice?

  15. Ugh, Asparagus Fern. Roundup only seems to kill the shoot down to the ground, but then in a little while the plant will send up new shoots. I have had some limited success with a multispectrum herbicide at double the recommended concentration, but you have to keep on it with applications right when you see new shoots popping up.

  16. Asparagus fern is definitely on my list. My mom has been fighting it for years.

    Another one on my list is water elm (Planera aquatica) which is a horribly weed in my yard. Twice each year I have to go around and dig out all the new seedlings before they get too big. And if I miss any section of root, then it will grow back in the same spot in a few months. And it grows fast… maybe five feet in the first year.

  17. When I moved into my house I ripped out all the asparagus fern in the yard. It was pointy, didn’t have flowers and was fugly. I then hired a landscape architect who suggested…. you guessed it. Asparagus Fern. I looked at him and seriously considered firing him.

  18. Asparagus fern, Hmmm? Is that what the hell that nasty stuff is called? I recognize it instantly from the photo. I’ve tried like hell to abolish it from my property without luck. If anyone knows how to kill this stuff, please let me know.

  19. Yes, this stuff is most prolific in Louisiana (the other LA). Strangles everything. Also on my list, PRIVET ((sounds of people screams as they run away)). Keeps popping up in my azaleas!

  20. Privet is definitely number one on my list. The misnomered “Tree of Heaven” (Ailanthus altissima) is second– not only will it grow into a stout tree given a crack between two slabs of concrete, it stinks like hell when you bruise a leaf. Third, “Blue Dawn” morning glory (Ipomoea somethingorother)–your neighbor a block away plants one in the yard and suddenly it’s in yours.

  21. I haven’t experienced it outside, being in Iowa, but I have to say, I think “as a houseplant it’s probably fine” might be a little generous. Ever had an Asparagus indoors that you forgot to water for a little too long? Needles everywhere. It’s a frat boy: messy, thuggish, and deceptively civilized-looking.

  22. Jujube trees. Dear God, the horror. One tree in the backyard produced suckers that went under the foundation of the house.

    Hundreds of feet away from the parent tree, tough, tiny trees with tiny evil spines emerged from the lawn, planting beds, sidewalks.

    One word from a formerly organic gardener. Tordon.

    Just replaced a toilet seal and when I lifted the toilet off the floor, what was coming out of the satillo tile surrounding the drain?

    Jujube tree roots.

  23. Climbing euonymus is my personal bugaboo from Indiana. Once established, that stuff is permanent. And it hides poison ivy, sort of a symbiotic defense system.

  24. I think it’s too hot in our pocket of L.A., thank God! But I second the vote for Ailanthus altissima – a neighboring uninhabited property is overrun with it, and the things come up EVERYWHERE, including the 30’+ specimen on the property line knocking over our wall and heaving our concrete garage floor… There’s another near the driveway that sent roots all the way across it seeking our septic tank leach field. EVIL.

  25. The dummy who sold me my first house loved wisteria of all things! Yes, it’s pretty…awful on most allergy sufferers. It choked a leland cyprus to death, then it started on the house… A total nightmare.

  26. English Ivy. Looks lovely on old English houses (its little claws pull out mortar – I guess the English are experienced at repointing their brick). In the DC, Maryland, Virginia area, it escapes all the suburban yards (running, climbing, and seeding) and takes over woodlands. It can kill mature trees if not pulled down.

  27. That claw method sounds good for dealing with the Asparagus fern. I haven’t got it too bad, but it is pretty painful when you accidentally grab one.

    Burmuda grass is the thing I hate the most right now, I think. I’m working on landscaping over the former lawn and it is so freakin’ tenacious.

  28. I’m in the “Haters of Bermuda grass” corner. Dig it, pull it, sift it out. It’s been three years now and it’s better. I’ve never had a house that didn’t feature this rotten plant to deal with.


    And I think we have a patch of asparagus fern. Better get out there and check.

  29. I have had some success with killing asparagus fern. It was located in a large raised garden bed beside a patio, it had taken over everything and had gone wild. I hacked the plant back to ground level then covered the area with black plastic removing its light source. I left it in place for months which of course killed all living polant life, finally I removed the plastic and replanted the area with no further sign of the dreaded fern. It appears if you remove the sunlight long enough for the plant to die the tubors in the ground also rot and die. This would work well around the base of a tree or under shrubs as the taller plants are not damaged.

  30. Will glyphosate (Roundup) painted on Asparagus Fern foliage work? I’ve tried to pull it out but mine is rooted under a block wall next to a paver patio, among plants I want to keep, so digging it out won’t be easy.

  31. Jim,

    As I’m not a fan of Roundup (it’s a carcinogen) I can’t speak from experience. Asparagus fern is so tough, I wouldn’t be surprised if it laughed at glyphosate. Anyone who has tried is welcome to chime in.

  32. This has been an eye opener for me!!!…I bought an aparagus fern for a house plant & it has been growing like crazy in my new apartment…i noticed that it started sending out shoots & trying to latch on to other things it came in contact with…when I went to remove it that was when I noticed the thorns…to say I was shocked is an understatement…so I decided to check on the interent & found this place…I had no idea it could be so aweful…but I do love the one I have…I now know what I have to do to contain its rotten side…

  33. Ive never personally had the displeasure of having to wrangle asparagus fern, but a method that works well for taking out other hard to control invasives (i.e. running bamboos) is to cut it back to just above ground level and paint a 2-3x strength solution of roundup directly onto the stumps. Dont know if this would work, but it never hurts to share.

  34. Ha! Here in California people seem to love it! I just bought one hoping it would do well in the shade! I think it’s too cool in the San Francisco fog for it to do any damage. Please don’t cast any wicked spells on me~ I’m still learning!

  35. Send them all to me. I had a potted plant as a child that I kept alive for years. Been trying ever since I’ve been an adult to grow one indoors, and I have killed every single one….

  36. I’m a new resident of HI & guess that what I’m fighting is asparagus fern. NASTY! It took a pickax to loosen up the roots. Think I’ll try the Roundup

  37. Two of my sons had a lawn service in the Tampa Bay area while in 7th & 8th grades. They referred to the Asparagus Fern as “Public Enemy #1”.

  38. Lol. I just found this as I was searching for a way to get rid of this awful plant once and for all. I, too, would like to curse the people who brought asparagus fern into my life. Sadly, I spoke with a horticulturist today who told me not even round up kills it.

  39. My top five least favorite plants are blackberries, privets, pyracantha,perennial morning glories and 4 O’clocks. I guess the blackberries and pyracantha would be ok on a large lot, but are a real problem in my small suburban garden. They volunteer freely, hurt like hell when you get pricked and are almost impossible to eliminate. I used to like the 4 O’clocks until I realized they produce enormous tubers that are almost impossible to remove. I’ve never really had a problem with my aspargus ferns in my South San Francisco Bay Area garden.

  40. Anyone have any trouble with – Mexican Bamboo/Japanese Knotweed? That is my enemy plant. It grows to 7 feet tall and puts out roots for about 30 feet from the plant. It flowers in the early fall and is kind of pretty. I know it is considered toxic waste in England and has to be disposed of by burying it approximately 6 feet underground. We can’t get rid of ours. We cut it off. We pull it up by it’s roots, but they always break off after you get 6 – 8 inches pulled out. You can see all of the sprouts growing on the roots. Mowing helps keep them down, but doesn’t kill them. I read that if you drop a piece on the ground it will re-sprout. Round-up didn’t do anything.
    Anyone have any tips to kill it?

  41. @Anon: Sorry, we don’t have any experience with Japanese Knotweed. Sounds like a bitch. This is an old post, so it won’t get a lot of traffic, but maybe someone with experience will chime in.

    All I can think of is out competing it by planting something even more vigorous, yet more desirable, in the area to choke it out. But yep, it might just send out runners… argh.

    One thing we do whenever we have a plant problem is search “extension services” and “plant name” — the universities are usually the best source of information for plant problems.

  42. Asparagus s. You quote:…whose virtues have not been discovered? False. The best remedy for cold sore (shingles,a viral entity). Make an alcoholic extract by macerating the fresh plant (collected at midday; be careful when cutting the stem (thorns!. Good luck!

  43. Actually I LOVE this aspargus fern. I think it is the most beautiful of all of them. The only thing I don’t like is the thorns. I am trying to bring to prime one that my daughter neglected. It needs to be transplanted into a larger pot and I am trying to find info on how to do it with no gloves! When she had it, it was huge. Like 3 and a half ft wide by 4 ft tall. but she didn’t heed my warnings and transplant it and when early summer happened she set it outside in the full sun and it almost died. I pruned it but it needs to be transplanted now.

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