Definitely Not Worth Waiting For

We have highlighted some beautiful and interesting plants on these pages, but Asparagus rubicundus features on account of its status as one of my least favourite plants at Phillipskop. (At least it is native; the invasive alien plants easily beat it in the bad plant category.) It most commonly grows in bushier areas amongst rocky outcrops and on the transition between fynbos and scrub. It tends to scramble through other plants with the help of some sharp backwardly curved thorns. It is these thorns that catch the unwary hiker. They don’t just scratch you, but hook into your clothing and skin so that onward movement just makes matters worse. They are like little fishing-hooks that can only be released by carefully reversing the direction of entry.  If one is unfortunate to have blundered into a whole bush, it can be extremely hard to extricate, as several branches of thorns have to be delicately taken out one-by-one without succumbing to further entrapment. It has consequently received the common name of “wag 'n bietjie” or “wait-a-bit”.

Young plant of Asparagus rubicundus (Asparagaceae)

Young plant of Asparagus rubicundus

Flowering branch of Asparagus rubicundus (Asparagaceae)

Asparagus rubicundus branch with recurved thorns

Ornamental value

Does Asparagus rubicundus have any saving graces? It is not beautiful, but the fresh growth of green “leaves” against the dark reddish stems (“rubicundus” means ruddy or reddish) is attractive. At this time of year, they also produce small white 6-petalled flowers with bright orange anthers and a light cocounut scent; these are followed by small red berries. I say leaves because that is what they look like, but actually the tiny needle-like growths are short stems known as cladodes. All Asparagus produce these cladodes, which appear in the axils of the scale-like true leaves.

To eat or not to eat

Some may be wondering whether this plant bears any relationship to the soft tender vegetable one sees in supermarkets. They are indeed quite closely related but the asparagus of gardens, Asparagus officinalis, does not bear any thorns. It is the young shoots that one eats and looking at the young shoots of Asparagus rubicundus one can see the scales that cover the shoot tip are indeed rather similar in appearance to the the better known vegetable delicacy. Are these young shoots edible? They might well be but I would not want to contend with those thorns not matter how tender they are.

New shoot of Asparagus rubicundus (Asparagaceae)

New shoot of Asparagus rubicundus shows the similarity to the vegetable asparagus

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