How a Cornish boy hooked up with a Dorset girl: a tale of Wild Asparagus

The Lizard Peninsula is justifiably well known for its rare and unusual plants. Whilst many of these plants have obscure and peculiar names, such as Fringed Rupturewort, Land Quillwort and Hairy Greenweed, reflecting their, well, obscure and peculiar status, others have more familiar names, such as Wild Chives, Chamomile and Wild Asparagus.

Wild Asparagus was previously much more widespread, found around many of our coastal sites and presumably common enough to give its name to Asparagus Island at Kynance Cove. Today, however, the plant is extremely rare, found in only about 20 coastal sites across Cornwall, where its stronghold is The Lizard, together with a few plants in southern Wales and – until recently – a single, lonely Dorset plant.

Asparagus is dioecious, meaning it has both male and female plants. This strategy might be helpful in preventing inbreeding within plant communities, but when population levels get very low, it becomes more and more difficult to find a suitable mate.

Wild Asparagus
Wild Asparagus

For a time she was perhaps the loneliest plant in Dorset, a female Wild Asparagus plant growing alone on a patch of ground near Portland. The nearest male was over a hundred miles away, in Cornwall.

So, in a bid to ensure Wild Asparagus remained in Dorset, the National Trust worked with Natural England, the National Museum of Wales and Dorset Environmental Records Centre to play cupid and find our lonely Dorset girl a mate.

Back in 2007, once our Dorset girl was in flower, a healthy young eligible male with freshly opened flowers and lots of shiny, sticky yellow pollen was found on National Trust land near Cadgwith on The Lizard. Several flowering shoots were delicately cut and taken 175 miles to Dorset to meet the ready and waiting female. On arrival, the male and female ‘kissed’ – their flowers were rubbed gently together to transfer pollen from the male’s anthers to the female’s stigma.

The result was a crop of berries which, when grown on, produced 90 new Wild Asparagus plants. In 2008, 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.

Five years later, a small colony of Wild Asparagus plants had become established in Dorset and the team went back to check on their progress. Most have survived – there were 51 of the 60 young plants put out in 2008 still growing well, of which 11 were flowering, including seven male and four female plants.

It is hoped that this work will have ensured the survival of Wild Asparagus in Dorset, and The Lizard team can be justifiably proud to have helped make this extremely rare plant slightly less threatened.

Published: June 2013
Author: Justin Whitehouse (National Trust Head Ranger, The Lizard)