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Even the finest greenery will become passé if it is too easy to grow. Cast-iron plant
(Aspidistra elatior) is such a plant. During the Victorian era it was the darling of every drawing room,
boarding house, bank lobby and upscale barroom, but subsequent generations of gardeners
cast it off in favor of more intriguing fare. Some claim that Aspidistra’s success
in Victorian homes was the modern genesis for houseplants inside our homes.
Aspidistra is an evergreen understory plant belonging to the asparagus family. It
is native to islands on the southern end of the Japanese archipelago and probably
Taiwan. Once thought to consist of only a few species, as many as 90 species have
been described since China opened in the 1980’s. This species, the only one widely
grown in the United States, has creeping rhizomes that produce petioled, 20-inch-long
and 4-inch-wide flat evergreen leaves that make dense, slow spreading clumps that
reach heights of 30 inches in mild climates.
Seldom noticed solitary, purple, bell shaped flowers are produced just above the ground
in the forest duff in the spring. Long thought to be pollinated by slugs, it is now
known that various terrestrial amphipods, small shrimp like creatures, and a variety
of insects found in forest duff perform the function. The fruit is a single seeded
The first aspidistras arrived in Europe in the 1820’s and, because of the new plant
craze that swept Europe and especially England during the Victorian era, it became
a popular parlor plant during that time. It was also the time of the great fern craze,
so Victorian parlors filled with all manner of ferns and other “stove plants,” as
houseplants were known. But Darwinian principles apply with houseplants too, so after
a time survivors emerged. Aspidistra and Sansevieria (mother-in-law’s tongue) were
standout survivors and lead the way as common houseplants for several generations.
That aspidistra became known as cast-iron plant during the height of the Industrial
Revolution is fitting, because this tough plant could have easily stood up to the
conditions of the factory floor. It just sat there and survived neglect, low light
and ever-deepening layers of dust. Beer plant became a common name because it often
graced bars where bartenders watered it with the dregs from the bottom of beer glasses.
In 1936 George Orwell – best known for his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-four – published Keep the Aspidistra Flying. In this book the main character, Gordon Comstock, chucks the material world and
tries an existence without money. By the end of the novel he relents, gets his old
job back and marries his sweetheart, Rosemary. In the closing pages, they have their
first argument as a married couple over his insistence they purchase an aspidistra
to sit beside the occasional table. To Rosemary an aspidistra is an “awful depressing
thing” but to Gordon, “It’s the first thing one buys after one’s marriage,” a notion
he developed walking the mean streets of London as he looked into flats during his
period of moneyless exile.
Aspidistra will grow outside in all parts of Arkansas, but in my garden where it has
grown for almost twenty years, it’s evergreen foliage is killed to the ground whenever
temperatures reach 20⁰F. In south Arkansas it is reliably evergreen; in central areas
it is evergreen in protected locations. In the garden it is used as a groundcover
for dry shade or as a ring around the base of shade trees.
As a houseplant it is almost indestructible. Because it lives so long, it should be
grown in 8-12-inch containers, and when repotting is needed, the original plant divided.
Keep the pot size in that range or a plant too heavy to lift will be the eventual
fate. The plant will tolerate any low light corner during the winter months and then
renew itself when moved outdoors to a shaded patio during the summer. Too much sunlight
causes the foliage to bleach out and yellow.
For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns,
visit Extension’s Website, www.uaex.uada.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part
of the U of A Division of Agriculture.
The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the University of Arkansas System Division
of Agriculture and offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race,
color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, marital or veteran status,
or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity