A helping hand for the wild asparagus

Wild Asparagus (Asparagus prostrates)

Wild asparagus is a coastal plant that grows in a handful of counties in the UK, including Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire, Cornwall and Dorset. It is genetically different from garden asparagus and tastes very different too.

'It's a very rare plant in Britain, found on just a handful of sites,' says Janet Lister, our Wildlife and Countryside Adviser. 'We play a vital role in the conservation of wild asparagus as we own and manage much of the coastline where they grow.'

The problem

This was once a plentiful plant. But like many species, due to changes in land use and management, it is in decline. It is now classed as an ‘endangered’ species on the GB Red List.

The plant has separate male and female plants, and is insect-pollinated. Population growth can be limited when there's a small population with only one sex. If they become too scattered, pollination also becomes difficult.

A UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) is in place to help protect and conserve these plants. We've been recording and monitoring wild asparagus locations along with local botanists and our partners: the National Museum of Wales, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, and Dorset Environmental Record Centre.

The survey shows that Cornwall is the main stronghold for the plan. Population numbers have remained roughly the same across the county since a survey carried out in 2001.

Pollination game

In order to try to boost the UK’s wild asparagus population, we set up a hand pollination project with Natural England.

The first plant to receive a ‘helping hand’ was a single female plant in Dorset. With no male plants left nearby to pollinate her, the population was under threat.

The objective of the project was to hand pollinate the female plant with some fertile male plants. We then took the seed from her fruit to grow and plant out the seedlings to boost the local population.

Male plants were selected from two donor sites that we look after in Cornwall. Their stems, complete with ripe anthers and lots of pollen, were snipped and transported to Dorset for some very delicate match-making.

Asparagus success?

After a nail-biting few months our female plant produced lots of ripe berries from which seed was extracted. About 90 per cent of those seeds germinated.

The seedlings were grown domestically in pots and planted out in two suitable sites two years later.

Of the 60 young plants put out, 51 are still growing well and there's a good mix of male and female flowering plants.

Here's hoping this project has ensured that the wild asparagus survives in Dorset.