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10 Reasons to Plant (and How to Propagate) the Foxtail Fern

Sherry has maintained homes and landscaped yards for 48 years in Southern California. She has collected water-wise succulents for 12 years.

The foxtail fern is a striking plant that maintains its green color year-round.

The foxtail fern is a striking plant that maintains its green color year-round.

The Foxtail Fern Is an Easy Landscape Plant for the Waterwise Garden

The foxtail fern is an evergreen, drought-resistant plant that needs little care and looks bright green all year long. It is also known as Asparagus meyeri or Asparagus densiflorus 'myers'.

It is from the South Africa region and thrives in the Mediterranean climate zones, but it can also flourish indoors in pots and be brought outdoors when the weather permits. It is an easy plant to care for and will offer many years of enjoyment in your yard.

A foxtail fern among other plants in the garden.

A foxtail fern among other plants in the garden.

10 Reasons to Love the Foxtail Fern

  1. There is no trimming or pruning (as is necessary for hedges or roses).
  2. A mature plant will grow to 6 to 8 feet across, but new plants will stay about 3 or 4 feet across for 12 years or more.
  3. For the 32 years I have had my plant (pictured), pests have not attacked or diminished its health.
  4. It is easy to start new plants by dividing the base root system with 10 or 12 sprays attached.
  5. If you live in SoCal or a similar zone, you will be very happy with this plant. Snowy climes will need to bring them in for shelter during the colder months.
  6. This inedible asparagus plant is a member of the lily family and is not technically a fern. It is hardy—even the occasional frost will leave no noticeable damage.
  7. The foxtail ferns in my yard do not get extra water (except during prolonged periods of 95 degrees or more).
  8. It has tiny white flowers that attract honey bees.
  9. My plants have not tasted a drop of chemicals and are thriving.
  10. The foxtail adds bright green to contrast with other landscape plants in a semi-arid clime.
This is the Sprengeri asparagus fern, which you should avoid. It's invasive.

This is the Sprengeri asparagus fern, which you should avoid. It's invasive.

Two Types of Asparagus Fern

The plant highlighted here is the Meyeri. The other type, the Sprengeri, has thinner stems that do not stand up on their own. Know which one you want when shopping for a new plant. Avoid Sprengeri, as it is very invasive. Plant lovers seem to get these two plants mixed up. The term "asparagus fern" is commonly used for both types, and "foxtail fern" is mostly used for the Meyeri with the compacted tails.

Sprengeri Is Invasive

The Sprengeri is classified as a weed in Hawaii, Florida, New Zealand, and Australia. It takes about four or five root diggings to rid an area of it. In the 1970s, it was popular as a potted plant and was widely available.

The two types of asparagus fern, side by side.

The two types of asparagus fern, side by side.

Above, you see both types: the Meyeri on the left and the invasive Sprengeri on the right. Big mistake, in my opinion. Many plants in this planting are water-hungry, and I noticed in the late afternoon there was evidence of plenty of watering. Not wise in Southern California.

At the upper right, two foxtails are planted where, as mature plants, only one will fit.

How to Take Care of a Foxtail Fern

Enough about the invasive plant. The foxtail fern looks fabulous with a clean-out twice a year. Pare away deadwood and perk up the sides of the bushes.

Note that there will always be sprays that are dead or drying up. These are the oldest and this is the way the plant keeps itself under control. Twice a year, weed out these dry sticks and clean the plant to spruce it up.

Removing Dead, Dry Sticks

To do this, lift the sprays off the ground, and hold them to the center. Work into the center, cutting off dead, browning, and thinning spears at least four inches from the base. There are always new shoots.

Clean out your foxtail fern twice a year by removing the dry sticks.

Clean out your foxtail fern twice a year by removing the dry sticks.

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Last, loosen and pick out twigs from former cuttings to allow areas for new growth.

If you get more than 10 sprays browning out in one season, you may have to give the plant more water!

Quick Motion Technique

Another technique is grab the spear about halfway down, then going in the opposite direction of the line of growth, snap the spear back with a quick motion. It just breaks off at the base. This technique is especially easy to do if the plant has dried out a couple of weeks. It took me a long time to realize I can use this quick motion method. Try it on your bush. Be sure to wear gloves.

Lush foxtail ferns.

Lush foxtail ferns.

What Other Plants Can Be Planted Near a Foxtail Fern?

A landscape needs more than a foxtail fern. The aeonium, the sago palm, and jade plant do well beside the foxtail plant.

The sago palm is a chore to maintain, but it looks good beside the foxtail.

Succulents are a breeze, and the aeonium are colorful and add new textures to the whole landscape. Once you have a section established with succulents, replant with new cuttings once a year to replace the long and leggy older ones.

Foxtail ferns look lovely alongside plants like sago palm and various succulents.

Foxtail ferns look lovely alongside plants like sago palm and various succulents.

Other Tips

  • Use single plants for dramatic color.
  • In a mass planting, thin out the individual plants as they get bigger and more crowded to leave the remaining plants 8 feet apart. The root mass gets thick and forms a mound at the center and can be four to six feet in diameter. New spears may grow from any spot.
  • A mature plant will not allow any plants to grow beside it because of its thick root system. Be warned: if space is limited, this plant may not be for you.
  • Purchase only one asparagus meyeri fern. It is very easy to propagate. (Instructions below.)
  • The Sunset New Western Garden Book says it "will survive light frosts but may be killed to ground by severe cold. Frosted plants often come back from roots."
  • It is a houseplant everywhere; however, it will turn yellow in dense shade.
You can see the tiny white flowers blooming amid the green sprigs.

You can see the tiny white flowers blooming amid the green sprigs.

Little White Flowers

Little flowers appear on mature plants and attract scores of honey bees. These flowers develop into red berries that attract birds. The berries are said to be poisonous for cats and dogs. Our dogs have always ignored the berries.

Propagating the foxtail fern is surprisingly easy, but it takes some muscle.

Propagating the foxtail fern is surprisingly easy, but it takes some muscle.

How to Propagate Foxtail Fern

The mature plants can be divided into new plants. All you need is a little muscle, a narrow shovel, and some time.

Step One:

Decide where to split off the plant. In the photos, you'll notice I take less than a quarter of the plant. I hold the spears down for ease of separating. That way the shovel can be used to slice into the root mass. It may be hard going for lightweight gardeners. Slice down as far as you can.

Step Two:

On the outside of the plant about 6 inches from the stem base, start digging down and under the root mass. Use the shovel to leverage it out by putting your weight down on the end of the handle. Work around the target area three or four times. Now try to lift it out. You may have to work at a few spots to work it free.

The root ball is not hard and tangled with thin dense roots, so this should not be too difficult to do. In this picture, you can see how the roots are loose at the bottom.

See the loose roots at the bottom?

See the loose roots at the bottom?

Step Three:

Here is the section out of the ground. Clean out cut roots, stems, and loose dirt to give the new growth plenty of room and air pockets.

Clean out the roots, stems, and loose dirt from your cut section.

Clean out the roots, stems, and loose dirt from your cut section.

Step Four:

Here is the root ball cleaned up. It is still a little large for the new pot, so I shortened and thinned it out some more. The new plant will have 13 green spears. The pot is filled with store bought potting soil.

A cleaned-up root ball will look something like this.

A cleaned-up root ball will look something like this.

Step Five:

The plant will get plenty of water and a slightly shaded spot until new growth appears.

The Young Foxtail Plant

Young foxtail are slow to establish. In fact, it takes them about 2 or 3 growing seasons to mature in the ground. On a young plant grown in shade, the spears are a darker green and not as dense looking.

Newly planted foxtail fern

Newly planted foxtail fern

Have You Grown Foxtail Fern?

Give us your experience with this asparagus fern plant. Have you proved yourself a green thumb grower with this plant or did yours fade away? Ask questions if you like. I may have your answer.

Many readers have added their growing tips in this section. Read the comments here for more tips on the foxtail fern.

Some questions answered below.

  1. What are the balls on the roots?
  2. How a Wisconsin grower winters her plant.
  3. Chris E. give us her routine in snowy WVirignia for her two potted foxtails.

Comments From Readers (and Responses From the Author)

"I had 2 beautiful foxtails. They spent a very cold night outside and are now completely brown. Do I need to cut them back and when do I do this? It's January now and I live in the north Texas area. They have been so beautiful and green for two years but we did get some real cold weather. Thank you for your help." —Mary Ellen

"Mary Ellen, very old three foot foxtails have enough roots and spears to protect from occasional frosts. Since they are only 2 years old it all depends on if the root system froze as well. Cut the brown off and water if there's no chance of frost for a few days. Try to predict overnight frost, using the weather report, and cover with newspaper. Remove the newspaper during the day so the soil and plant get the warming and helpful sun rays. When the spring growing season kicks in is when you will know if the roots survived, because new spears will grow. Good luck." —Sherry Venegas (Author)

"Shannon, I would not give up on it. See if you get new shoots during the summer months. If there are viable roots they will sprout, but with that it will take a couple of years to get a plant of any good size back. Mine took more than 3 years to get shoots bigger than 5 inches." —Sherry Venegas (Author)

"I had a beautiful foxtail fern . . . sadly, it spent a very cold night outside and is now completely brown. can i cut back all growth and hope it will return? i am hoping it bounces back like my asparagus ferns do . . ." —anonymous

"I have grown the 'other' type of asparagus fern. Yes, it was in a hanging basket in the 70s! The only way to kill it was to throw it away. I have always loved the Foxtail fern and will most definitely buy one this year." —Mickie Goad

"I've had my Foxtail Fern for 3 years as a pot plant in my conservatory. I live in the south of England and I put the pot outside for the summer months where it does very well, however I find that it does not like the strong winds that sometimes whistle through my back garden. I've shied away from dividing my plant as I didn't want to lose it as I've never seen them for sale here before, but after reading this article I think I may give it a go next spring. My plant has white bulbs on the roots and I'd like to know what you have to say about those if possible. Many thanks." —Debbie
"Debbie, Glad to meet you and your success with the foxtail. Since my little Jack Russell started eating those white root balls and showed no ill effects, I have decided that they are used for water storage. If you should divide your potted plant, retain 75% for the present plant to 25% for the new plant. If you put your potted plant in a windy area it will need more water, than in the protected conservatory. Thanks for telling us your plant experience." —Sherry Venegas (Author)