10 Reasons to Plant (and How to Propagate) the Foxtail Fern
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 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.
10 Reasons to Love the Foxtail Fern
- There is no trimming or pruning (as is necessary for hedges or roses).
- 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.
- For the 32 years I have had my plant (pictured), pests have not attacked or diminished its health.
- It is easy to start new plants by dividing the base root system with 10 or 12 sprays attached.
- 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.
- 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.
- The foxtail ferns in my yard do not get extra water (except during prolonged periods of 95 degrees or more).
- It has tiny white flowers that attract honey bees.
- My plants have not tasted a drop of chemicals and are thriving.
- The foxtail adds bright green to contrast with other landscape plants in a semi arid clime.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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 leaves no debris to pick out later. 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
"I bought a plant at a local nursery, more than I wanted to pay, but I loved the plant and had to have it. After two years I had to divide it as it was getting to big for the large pot I had it in. I put the divided piece in another large pot and now it looks like I am going to have to divide again next year. I will have 4 big plants next spring and they look so beautiful on our deck, they are truly the highlight of our landscaping. They have long two and a half foot long flowing sprigs and the center is densely full of shorter nice shaped sprigs. I don't mind the original cost now as I am getting more beautiful plants, I also have about 20 small plants that I have grown from seed from the plants. It has become my favorite plant,and I plan to have 10 0r 12 plants in the planter box that runs along the side of the deck." —anonymous
"Thanks for a great article! I have two identical pots with a foxtail fern in each. I live in West Virginia and I take the pots in every fall, keep them in a heated garage with lots of sunlight. I trim them up in the spring and put them back out by my pool, where they get full sunlight day after day. I have done this for about 6 or 7 summers!" —anonymous
"I have one that I've had outside for 12 years. I repotted it finally last year. I'm in San Diego." —anonymous
"I have these potted, and they love root cramp, so you can keep them in the same pot forever, dividing as you want to grow more plants. Great article!" —L. Olson from Northern Arizona
"I had very good success when we lived on the west coast. They grew like weeds - very hardy! Here on east coast, no luck. Too tender." —anonymous
"I live in Phoenix, AZ, and have a beautiful foxtail, that I baby, and shade from direct Sun, for about 5 mo.out of the year. It is in a 24" diameter pot, placed in indirect Sun. It is about 18" across, and 18" at highest point. They are beautiful plants, and do not tear up your hand lije the Asparagus. I love the pictures, and your progress on plant. Most of all love the Jack Russell, as I have a female J.R., that I rescued, who is my constant companion. Gotta love em!"—anonymous
"The natural looking artificial plants give every soul a soothing effect that is hard to give away. Imagine a wonderful greenish plant smiling right at your computer desk to relax and refresh you from a stressful day." —jemsadriatic
"I have not grown the Foxtail Fern, but landscapers use it for texture, shape and color in many gardens here in Northern California. Lovely plant." —Kathryn Grace from San Francisco
"What I love about the foxtail fern: It doesn't take over the garden like some ferns do. This is a lovely fern on a lovely article! Thank you."—Thankfultw
"My cat ate some leaves of the foxtail fern. He is sick. What symptoms would a cat that eat the leaves of the foxtail fern be?" —Sheree
"Sheree, Our dogs have never ate any of the leaves, but I believe that part of the plant is not good for animals. I do not know the symptoms or how sick an animal will get. If it persists you may want to see a vet. Please let us know if your cat is okay. Information like that will be good for animal owners and people who have the foxtail fern." —Sherry Venegas (Author)
"We do not have a deer problem here. Too many fenced yards in SoCal, not sure about deer eating it. As far as, fertilizer I have never added any to the foxtails. If you are starting new ones maybe root booster will help. I have noticed that the new one I have started in a pot is growing very slowly." —Sherry Venegas (Author)
"I have one of these plants in the Pacific Northwest. I always bring it in in the winter. It often will turn brown each year, but is fine and has new growth on it. Can't wait for the weather to turn so I can take it out in the backyard. Wonderful plant!" —MarcellaCarlton
"THEY ARE ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS..I LIVE IN FLORIDA AND THEY ARE A PRETTY PICTURE ALL ALONG THE FRONT OF MY ENGLISH TUDOR HOME. I EVEN HAVE ONE OF THE FLOWER SHOPS COME BY FROM TIME TO TIME TO TRIM OFF SOME OF THE LEAVES FOR WEDDINGS BECAUSE SHE LOVES THEM SO MUCH, THEY DECORATE GREAT AND LAST A LONG TIME. WONDERFUL PLANT.. WE ARE GOING TO MOVE AND BELIEVE-YOU-ME I A TAKING ALL OF THEM WITH ME." —anonymous
"I've had this plant for about 3 yrs now. Living in NE Wisconsin, it does great outside during summer, but must come in for the winter. It will become dormant for the winter months and doesn't like to be watered. Come spring I trim any dead branches and put back outside where it livens back up to new! Love it." —LKrocker.
"Thanks for this information LKrocker. I was wondering how snowy climes protect their foxtail ferns. Does it come into the heated house or the cooler basement?" —Sherry Venegas (Author)
"I love the Foxtail Fern. It doesn't take much care and it never dies. I would like to know what to do about the roots with the little balls that spread out on top of the ground. What do you do with them. Can you start new plants with them. The last freeze, 17 degrees, did a little damage but I removed the fronds at the base. How do I divide them and what do I do about the roots and balls spredding around the diameter of the plant on top of the ground. Please help." —Jackie
"Hi Jackie, I would try less water to discourage all the water balls and the roots on top of the ground. Mine get no water around the perimeter. I water with the hose about twice a month directly into the center of the plant. The roots do stay near the surface, though. I do not think the balls will start new plants. I heard of seeds but have never tried them. I just divide some of the plant off to start new ones. Instructions are above. Have a nice spring season."—Sherry Venegas (Author)
"I love the Foxtail Fern. It doesn't take much care and it never dies. I would like to know what to do about the roots with the little balls that spread out on top of the ground. What do you do with them. Can you start new plants with them. The last freeze, 17 degrees, did a little damage but I removed the fronds at the base. How do I divide them and what do I do about the roots and balls spreading around the diameter of the plant on top of the ground. Please help."—anonymous
"My 1 yr. old Jack Russell loves those balls and now makes a mess of the beds to get at them. When he chomps on them I can tell they are crunchy. I do not think they produce plants. We would have new shouts everywhere if they did. I imagine they are for storing extra water." —Sherry Venegas (Author)
"I have a fox tail and it is a wonderful plant, everyone asks me what it is because it is so interesting looking I decided to transplant it to an area where it could really spread out and really show off. When I dug it up I noticed that the roots had balls about the size of Queen Olives. What are those? Can you plant them and grow more?" —anonymous
"Thanks for the useful info. My Foxtail is 33 years old and is 6 feet in diameter. Has always been a house plant. I do tend to let it dry out between waterings, it also likes lots of light. I've never propagated it, but I'll give it a go after reading this."—anonymous
"Sherry, THANK you for such wonderful information on the Foxtail Fern. I just purchased one of these yesterday (Virginia Beach, VA) and hope that I have the luck you've had. I was going to find a place in partial sun .. but from reading your post, I plan to put it in full sun. Also the watering thing, everything I've read says to "keep it moist" but since you do not recommend that I'll go with your suggestion. Thanks again." Sheena White - Virginia Beach
"Hi Sheena, During your warm months it can dry out a few days, and sun will give you fuller and rounder spears. I am concerned about winter and the snow. Is your plant going to be in a pot because frost will kill your meyeri. It will need shelter from the snow." —Sherry Venegas (Author)
"The roots and bulbs are not enough to get grow new spears. Those bulbs are for water storage only. If you take the roots, bulbs and several of the spears with it, that is what will take root in new soil."
"I have 3 ferns at the moment the one located at a shaded part blossoms and sprouted more spray. While the other in direct sunlight went brown and dried. Is it because I added to much water? If it was originally from Africa does it mean it should not be watered too much? Please help. thanks." —Mac
"Mac, If the sun is very hot because it is summer, burning may have destroyed sprays. Generally, foxtail will do fine in the sun, but a potted plant may need extra water. If you think hot sun may have burned the sprays it should be okay and sprout again. If it is in a pot move it to a more shaded area for the summer. Let it dry for a day before watering again." —Sherry Venegas (Author)
"I bought asparagus meyerii foxtail fern seeds from ebay. none of them have come up. I started them in purchased soil, in a greenhouse. I then brought the pot outside for a shaded spot. it's very hot and humid in SW Tennessee but I expected growth in the last 3 months. What is the germination period? Am I impatient or what can I do to see growth?" —Connie
"Hello Connie, One thing I have not done is start a plant with seeds. I know that the foxtail likes plenty of sun. I would try a direct sunny place for a least four hours a day. It should dry out before watering again. As a young plant it grows very slowly. Let's wait and see. Let us know if you get any sprouts from your mail order seeds." —Sherry Venegas (Author)
"I live in Las Vegas, and it's much too hot for this plant outside for about 9 months of the year. I've seen them inside other homes, but they don't seem to thrive as well. But this is a beautiful green lens, and I'm giving it a leprechaun like for St. Patrick's Day. Thanks for sharing."—Nancy Carol Brown Hardin from Las Vegas, NV
"Our New England winters wouldn't treat the foxtail very well but it looks like it would make a nice border if kept in check. I may try potting something small that could be brought inside during the colder months. The flowers on the Myer's asparagus are a nice feature." —ronberry lm
"This spring I purchased a foxtail fern at a nursery. It was beautiful for a while but started turning brown in the center. The fronds start turning brown at the bottom then it moves up until the entire frond is brown. It has worked its way out from the center so that most of the plant is now brown. The nursery gave me a new one to replace it but now I notice that it is turning brown also. Is this a sign that it needs more water? I was told that it needs very little water." —Katrinka
"Katrinka, Sorry to hear your foxtail is not doing well. It can dry out for about 5 days, then give it some water. If it is in a pot in a hot clime do not let it stay dry for more than three days. It is drought resistant, but they need more water than a succulent or cactus. Is it in full sun all day?"—Sherry Venegas (Author)
© 2009 Sherry Venegas