Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sprenger's Asparagus Fern

What’s still green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, coral bell, sea pink, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, snow-in-summer, pinks.

What’s red: Cholla, small-leaved soapwort, coral beardtongue, purple aster.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium, kalanchoë.

Animal sightings: Birds gathered in trees last Sunday before the storm moved through Monday.

Weather: Afternoons thawed the drive, and evenings refroze it. Some snow Monday, new moon Tuesday, 10:02 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: South Africa is the last place I ever expected to cultivate.

It isn’t just the politics. I always assumed that far southern hemisphere land, with its own floristic province which had evolved independently of the Eurasian landmass, produced plants too exotic to grow here.

But, this past week, when I looked out the windows of the enclosed porch towards sodden stalks detailed against wet cedar, the smell of damp earth infused the air where the space heater was drying the just watered aptenia of the Zulu and zonal geraniums descended from Cape Province parents.

Last summer I decided, once again, that the bowl of geraniums needed some kind of vine to fill the gaps between leaves on the fleshy stems. Vinca and Wandering Jew had failed. I doubted pothos or philodendron. I tried asparagus fern with little expectation that favorite of 1980's fern bars would survive my temperature extremes, intense sun, and occasional drought anymore than a lounge lizard could take daylight.

I’ve been surprised. The cluster of 8" stems in the original 2" pot have more than tripled in length, and now arch up through the geraniums to provide an unexpected veil of narrow leaves that soften its shapes and highlight its colors.

Mystified, I discovered my sprengeri variety of Asparagus densiflorus entered the nursery trade around 1890 through a bulb house in Naples with contacts in what had been the Boer colony of Natal. One of the Dammann owners, Mecklenburg born Carl Ludwig Sprenger was then experimenting with cannas and getting seeds from German speakers in the area.

I found my cousin of garden asparagus is as exotic as anything I might expect from that evolutionary island. Like the prickly pear fading in the cold out front, asparagus fern developed flat stems that photosynthesize sunlight into nutrients with less water loss than would occur through leaf pores. Those cladodes appear to be long narrow leaves, but the actual leaves are the tiny brown spines beneath the points where the modified branches attach to the round stems rising from the crown.

This member of the lily family has surface tubers which store water but do not participate in reproduction. Instead, tiny, six-petaled, white flowers produce dark red berries spread by birds, especially in parts of the world with climates similar to southern Africa.

This alien species from a stratified land passed into my life because another east African asparagus had trained my taste to expect some kind of filler in houseplant containers. When I was a child, florists still included tall stems of plumosa behind single roses or carnations in bud vases and often held them together with narrow satin ribbons.

Perhaps I can tell the remnants of my adolescent conscience this green protector of brash beauty no longer is South African, for the same reason I’m no longer part of the English who fought the Boer War and my neighbors are no longer the same Spanish who supported Franco. Asparagus fern seeds are sold in Europe, plants are produced in hothouses in Florida, and scientists are testing tissue propagation from small plant segments. We’ve all become domesticated together, and let our more feral traits atrophy.

Photograph: Zonal geranium through branches of asparagus fern looking out towards the cedar board fence, 12 January 2008.

No comments: