The Little Asparagus that Could

In 2006, NC plantsman, and our long time customer, Graham Ray of Greensboro, emailed to see if we were interested in a dwarf Asaparagus densiflorus (Sprengeri) fern that he grew in his rock garden, and had been winter hardy for several years in his Zone 7a garden.

We had already worked with several asparagus species for years, and have a great fondness for the ornamental potential of the genus, so of course, we jumped at the opportunity. We were perplexed, however, how a dwarf version of the marginally hardy Asparagus densiflorus could have survived in Greensboro, which is a 1/2 zone colder than our garden south of Raleigh.

Despite our skepticism, we planted our new treasure in fall 2006, which thrived here, despite our winter hardiness concerns, not blinking during three upcoming single digit F winters. A few years later, we sent a plant to our friend Hans Hansen at Walters Gardens in Michigan for further testing. Despite their winter temperatures well below 0F with no snow cover, it thrived there also. What was going on, we wondered, since this simply shouldn’t be possible.

A mature plant of the dwarf asparagus fern, 'Graham's Cracker' growing in our rock garden.
Asparagus ‘Graham’s Cracker’

Our mystery was finally resolved this summer when taxonomy researchers from the University of Georgia, working on the phylogeny of the genus Asparagus, learned of our extensive collection of Asparagus species, and came by to take samples for their research. This fall, we got word that our dwarf plant which we had named Asparagus ‘Graham’s Cracker’, was in fact not a selection of the common hanging basket species, Asparagus densiflorus, but was instead a seedling of the Zone 4 hardy Asparagus cochinchinensis.

As we re-traced the plants origin, it turned out that Graham had purchased the plant here at Plant Delights, as a dwarf seedling he found in one of our sale house flats, which our staff had failed to notice.

Above is a photo of a mature plant of Asparagus ‘Graham’s Cracker’ at JLBG, which has finally reached a whopping 15″ in height…a perfect plant for the rock garden or in larger bedding schemes. Like the species, the fall foliage is a brilliant gold.

Asparagus ‘Graham’s Cracker’ in fall

And here’s mama, Asparagus cochinchinensis ‘Chuwang’.

Asparagus cochinchinensis ‘Chuwang’

7 thoughts on “The Little Asparagus that Could”

  1. Just want to wish everyone at PDN very happy holidays and thank you so much for the daily postings.
    I have gotten too old to do much gardening any more; but y’all really make my day –
    some to fantasize about.

    1. Great question. First, it is not possible to accurately predict invasive plant tendencies for every region of the US. Impatiens and Lantana are terribly invasive in the Gulf Coast, but are fine everywhere else. Hedychium (ginger lilies are considered invasive in Hawaii, but nowhere else. Having reviewed quite a few plants which have been added to State invasive species lists, we find many of them aren’t based on any sound research, which is disappointing. When this happens, the public looses confidence in any such recommendations…i.e. the Chicken Little syndrome. Plants are constantly labeled invasive, when they are nothing more than garden thugs, or simply appear in natural areas, without causing any harm or displacing native plants in functioning natural ecosystems. There are plenty of truly invasive plants that should be avoided in certain regions, so please share the link for the actual study behind this, so we can review the quality of the research. Thanks.

      1. OK. I have emailed the IF/ISAF center for aquatic & Invasive plants with regard to the research that led to their article:
        I’ll share with you their response.
        From my limited personal experience the plant appeared in my garden unbidden (prob spread by birds from nearby landscapes, as I have many birds coming to feeders.) and is difficult to irradicate as it leaves behind small tubers and must be dug out. It’s pesty to say the least.
        Thanks for all you do. I was fortunate to visit you last May & it was quite an experience! Deb

          1. I stand corrected! I have faith that you have far more knowledge & expertise. Thank you for steering me in the right direction, JLBG.

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