Dorset girl and Cornish boy have a large family

Wild Asparagus (Asparagus prostrates)

A lonely girl, the only one of her kind in Dorset, finds love with a partner from a nearby county. A classic love story, but in this case also a conservation triumph.

Back in 2007, a female wild asparagus sat alone on a patch of ground near Portland, Dorset. The only one of her kind in the entire county, she was the only hope for the species remaining in this county.

A rare species, wild asparagus is found in about 20 coastal sites in Cornwall, plus a few in South Wales.

" It is a very rare plant in Britain, found on just a handful of sites, although more common in France and Spain. The places it likes to grow can be threatened by overgrazing or sometimes lack of grazing. "
- Janet Lister, National Trust Wildlife & Countryside Adviser

With her nearest mate over 100 miles away, our lonely Dorset aspargus needed help to find a partner. Playing cupid was a team of nature conservation experts from the National Trust, Natural England, the National Museum of Wales and Dorset Environmental Records Centre.

Match making

They identified the perfect partner in a male found on National Trust land in Cornwall. When he was flowering, with freshly opened flowers and lots of shiny, sticky yellow pollen, several flowering shoots were delicately cut and taken 175 miles to Dorset to be introduced to the waiting female.

Flowering wild asparagus
Flowering wild asparagus

With a bit of gentle encouragement to transfer pollen from the male’s anthers to the female’s stigma, everyone crossed their fingers and hoped the pairing would be fruitful.

The next generation

Much to everyones delight the result was a crop of berries which, when grown on, produced 90 new wild asparagus plants. 60 of these were planted out both around the female plant and at another site nearby where asparagus had been known to grow in the past. 

Wild asparagus with ripe red berries
Wild asparagus berries

27 young plants grew around the existing female in the first year, and 6 males and 3 females flowered. The plants will always be smaller at the second site because its in a more exposed location but also contain happy flowering plants.

In 2013, 51 of the 60 young plants put out in 2008 were still growing well with eleven of them flowering, including 7 male and 4 females. 

A hopeful future

" We were delighted to find the plants in flower. If we can get a good balance of both sexes, we have a good chance of establishing a viable colony back in Dorset of this endangered plant. "
- Simon Leach, Natural England Botanist

It is hoped that the work done over the past nine years will have ensured the survival of wild asparagus in Dorset. 

The plant grows mainly in coastal grasslands, is on the Red List of endangered species and a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) priority species. It is dioecious – meaning plants are either male or female, so both are needed in the same place for long term survival. The shoots can be eaten like garden asparagus but are rather bitter and the plant is so rare we would rather they were not picked.