The ming fern is a perennial evergreen fern with strong, woody stems and vibrantly emerald green shrubbery. It is a hardy plant that grows 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) tall, but may also be used as a bonsai plant or for other ornamental purposes. The ming fern is known by the botanical names Asparagus macowanii and Asparagus retrofractus. Common names for the plant include ming asparagus fern, zigzag shrub and pom pom asparagus fern.
Ming ferns feature fluffy green tufts formed from small, fine needle-like foliage. The tufts are not leaves, but cladodes, which are flattened branches that resemble leaves. The tufts cover the plant’s woody, stiff branches, which are typically gray. The ferns produce small, white or near-white flowers that bloom in clusters from early spring to late summer. If pollinated, the flowers may product small, dark fruit. Handlers should take care to avoid the fern’s sharp spines, which may cause injury.
Gardeners prize the ming fern for its durability and resistance to disease. The plant does equally well in conditions from sun to full shade, although too much sun may result in yellow or brown foliage. A native of arid regions of South Africa, ming ferns are known for a high tolerance to drought and require very little water to thrive.
The ming fern has three primary uses: as a garden plant, as an indoor plant and as part of floral arrangements. In the garden, ming ferns adapt well to a variety of soil conditions and can also function nicely as a border plant. It develops an extensive root system with tubers that allows it to survive conditions from drought to heavy rain. Other gardeners prefer to grow the ming fern in a container to stop it from growing too tall.
The fern also flourishes as an indoor plant. One popular use of the fern indoors is for bonsai, the practice of growing and shaping a miniature tree. Kept small for bonsai, the fern resembles a pine tree seedling. Just as in the garden, the fern will adapt to a variety of light, water and soil conditions indoors.
The ming fern often plays a supporting role in floral arrangements because its cut branches can last for seven to 10 days. Ming ferns are seen as decorative filler in flower arrangements, and the plant also is ideal for filler in boutonnieres, corsages and table centerpieces.
Despite its name, the ming fern is not a true fern. It is a member of the lily family and one of more than 400 plants in the Asparagus genus. Although known as one of the asparagus ferns, ming ferns are not edible, nor are they a vegetable. The nickname asparagus fern comes both from the Ming fern’s genus and from its resemblance as a seedling to asparagus stalks.