Asparagus retrofractus
Common Name: Ming fern 
Type: Herbaceous perennial
Family: Asparagaceae
Native Range: Southern Africa
Zone: 9 to 11
Height: 6.00 to 8.00 feet
Spread: 3.00 to 5.00 feet
Bloom Time: May to July
Bloom Description: White flowers - orange maturing to black fruits
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Low
Suggested Use: Naturalize
Flower: Showy, Fragrant
Leaf: Evergreen
Attracts: Birds
Fruit: Showy
Other: Winter Interest
Tolerate: Drought


Winter hardy to USDA Zone 9-11 where plants can be grown outdoors year round as long as temperatures never dip below 20-25 degrees F. Plants perform best in light, organically rich, consistently moist but well drained soils in part shade (bright indirect light or filtered sun). Avoid direct hot afternoon sun which may cause the leaves to yellow (scorch). Too much shade, however, may also cause the leaves to fade to light green or yellow. Additional causes of leaf yellowing include rapid changes in temperatures or lighting conditions. Although plants prefer evenly moist soils, they have respectable tolerance for drought. Pinch back stem tips as needed to maintain plant form and promote dense foliage growth. If plants lose attractive shape, stems may be cut back close to the soil level to regenerate. Propagate by seed or division. Self-seeding can be mildly invasive in some subtropical to tropical areas (e.g., southern Florida and Hawaii).

North of Zone 9, plants can be grown in containers that are overwintered indoors. They can also be grown inside year round as houseplants. Container plants are best grown with a well-drained, peaty potting mixture. Water regularly from spring to autumn. Plants do not need a winter dormancy period, but do appreciate a resting period with reduced watering over the winter months. Plants perform well with regular temperatures in summer and minimum 50°F temperatures in winter. It is best to re-pot plants every 3-4 years because of rapid root development within the pot. Plant branches have thorns, so wear gloves when pruning.

Noteworthy Characteristics

Asparagus retrofractus, commonly called ming asparagus fern, pom pom asparagus fern and zig zag shrub, is a shrubby herbaceous evergreen perennial that typically grows to 6-8’ tall. It is native to arid regions of South Africa.

This plant is noted for its fern-like foliage of needle-like clusters (20-30 cladophylls per cluster) which are spaced along the stems, with each cluster resembling a pom pom, hence the common name of pom pom asparagus fern. It is not in fact a fern, however. Nor is it an edible vegetable. It is a poisonous and inedible shrub-like perennial of the lily family which has thorny/spiny branches instead of fronds, propagates by seed instead of spores, and has leaf-like cladophylls (stem extensions) which are not leaves but generally perform the functions of leaves. The tiny, scale-like, actual leaves of this plant appear where each cladode meets the stem. Stems create a zig zag branching structure, hence the common name of zig zag shrub. Small, fragrant, 6-petaled, white flowers in open axillary umbels bloom in spring to early summer. Flowers are often followed by small orange round fruits which mature to black.

Genus name is the classical name of this plant.

Specific epithet comes from the Latin word retrofractus meaning twisted back in reference to the zig zag stems.

Asparagus fern part of the common name is in reference to both the genus name and the resemblance of the mature foliage to some sort of combination of lacy fern foliage and the upper parts of edible asparagus plants.


Watch for slugs, scale, spider mites, mealybugs and aphids. Leaf spot and rots may occur.


Where winter hardy, it may be grown in borders or along foundations. Use in pots, containers and hanging baskets. Container plants make excellent houseplants for bright, sun-filtered areas.