Newest Review: ... it quite quickly - that was in the days before I grew my green fingers! ~~ First Find Your Plant ~~ This may be easier said than done a... more
Not the Biggest Aspidistra in the World - Yet!
Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior)
Member Name: Verbena
Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior)
Advantages: Reasonably easy care and pest resistant, leaves useful in flower arranging
Disadvantages: Slow growing, not easy to find these days if you want to buy one.
~~ Introduction ~~
My earliest encounter with an aspidistra, as I recall, was in the entrance area in my rather traditional high school for girls, many years ago. I found it somehow both boring and interesting at the same time, for the same reason : it never seemed to change in any way! Then I came across references to the plant in songs like Gracie Fields' 'The Biggest Aspidistra in the World' and George Orwell's new classic 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying', which had this description:
'Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the aspidistra. Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it -- starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem, even mixing salt with its earth. But the beastly things are practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can preserve a wilting, diseased existence.'
These experiences made me curious about the plant and, when I had a place of my own to look after, I wanted to try growing one.
~~ A Bit of Background Reading ~~
I'm always fascinated to discover the origins of houseplants, as they tend not to be indigenous to this country - why would you grow them as houseplants if they were? - and knowing the kind of growth conditions in which they thrive naturally can be a great help in providing optimum conditions for them as a houseplant, as this is almost always a restricted form to grow them in. It seems that Eastern Asia is the most favoured region for the aspidistra genus to grow, with more than fifty species being found in China alone. For most of us in the UK, however, it is the Aspidistra Elatior which is the most common. It arrived here in about 1822 and was extremely popular in Victorian times, no doubt due in part to its ability to thrive in dark rooms and withstand pollutants such as those from a coal fire. I believe it's available in three main forms: the plain green, a variegated leaf, and a dwarf form. I imagine it would look very attractive if you could display all three together, with the small one at the front. Many years ago I managed to buy a variegated plant but unfortunately killed it quite quickly - that was in the days before I grew my green fingers!
~~ First Find Your Plant ~~
This may be easier said than done as the aspidistra is not so easy to find today. Garden centres don't often stock it, perhaps due in part to its slow rate of growth resulting in it taking a long time to reach specimen size. This was certainly true of mine, which was a straggly looking affair with about three leaves on when I purchased it several years ago from a local grocers shop that occasionally sold plants. I think I paid over £5 for it, even then. ! Maybe they've gone out of fashion in our days of fairly light, centrally heated homes. The scarcity and slow growth combined can also make it expensive to buy. On the day of writing, I checked prices on a few websites; Ebay had eight plants available at £19.99 each, with a hefty £7.95 postage and packing! It might be worth asking for a root division if you know someone who has one, or keeping an eye open at car boor sales if money is tight!
~~ Appearance and Characteristics ~~
The aspidistra has been describes as an old-fashioned, tough, houseplant with leathery foliage. I think the common name 'cast iron plant' comes from its seeming ability to cope with challenging conditions, whether outside or inside - rather like people who are said to have a cast-iron constitution. Its root system is rhizomatous, meaning that it has a horizontal, underground stem that often sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. The leaves are not unlike those of the maize or sweet corn plant. They are a long oval in shape and glossy dark green in colour. The plants may grow up to 60cm [24"] in height and have a spread of 45cm. [18"] Occasionally they produce flowers near soil level, on short stalks. The colour of these can apparently range from cream to purple, though they are inconspicuous. I have never seen any on my plant.
~~ How to Care for an Aspidistra ~~
I feel under qualified to write about this because, in truth, it has taken me some time to get mine to do well. I very thought I had it in a good location, in a dark situation in our entrance hall, but it looked unhappy there and dwindled down to 2 leaves. I really thought it would die, and in desperation moved it into our downstairs cloakroom, which is north facing. Thankfully it seems much happier there and now has about a dozen leaves. My only regret is that I don't feel it's displayed in its full glory in that situation. At the moment I'm not giving it much water but will gradually increase this from March. I will use a weekly foliar feed from March until late October, using something that is high in nitrogen content, like Baby Bio. That should encourage new growth and keep the leaves a lovely healthy green colour. If it gets really hot or dry I may spray the leaves with water to keep them from drying out too much. In late May/early June I will think about finding a sheltered outdoor position for it. Last year I placed it under one of my raised plant benches, so that it was away from direct light and hopefully wouldn't get waterlogged if there was heavy rain; if it did, I could easily check it and drain it off. I will bring it back in before the first frosts. Aspidistras can cope with a minimum temperature of 5-10˚C, apparently, so they are frost tender and I wouldn't want to risk losing it in this way. I don't think putting it outside is essential, though; it's just what I have found works for me. One good thing is that they are not bothered by many pests. If you kept them in a very warm place red spider mite could be a problem. I counteract this possibility by moistening the leaves, or by putting outdoors in the summer, as I mentioned. If over-watered continuously they can be prone to fungal leaf spots. To deal with this you would cut out any affected foliage, sterilising the cutting tool between each cut.
~~ Propagation ~~
The next time I think my aspidistra needs repotting, which is likely to be spring 2013, looking at it now, I shall look to see if I can cut off a section of the rhizome that has good roots attached as well as 3-4 leaves; I will then pot this division on and care for it as a young plantlet. It isn't possible to propagate aspidistras via leaf cuttings, and it seems that growing from seed is not easy, so propagation by division seems the obvious choice for me.
4 stars because it's not easy to find one!
Thank you for reading my review, which may also be found on other sites.
Summary: A great houseplant for a cool, dark spot.