Aspidistra has been with us so long that we tend to look upon it as one of our own. Introduced into the United States in 1824, it was immediately embraced as a fitting specimen in smoky barrooms and Victorian parlors. It is no less popular today as gardeners are quick to note its cast iron constitution.
Many people have never seen the flowers of the Aspidistra. Maroon flowers about one inch wide bloom at or just below ground level. The flowers are pollinated by ground-dwelling insects such as snails and slugs.
Plant Aspidistra in deep shade in organic, moisture-retentive soil. Although it tolerates drought and survives in spite of all we and nature can dish out, it thrives in moist soil and responds favorably to an occasional light fertilization or top-dressing of compost. Do not overdo, especially with the variegated types, for they tend to lose their variegation if the soil is too rich.
Once a year or so, old or tattered leaves may be removed. As a matter of fact, if the planting really starts looking ratty, cut it all back to the ground in spring before the new leaves appear. New growth will soon emerge, and it will be as attractive as ever.
Occasionally such pests as caterpillars, scale, mites, and sometimes slugs and snails may need to be controlled. Though diseases are not prevalent, leaf spots and various root rots can become problematic if foliage remains wet or if soil is not well-drained.
Propagate Aspidistra by dividing established clumps. A section can be cut away from a clump, or the entire clump can be dug and divided by cutting with a sharp knife or pulling apart. The divisions rarely miss a beat when planted in a freshly prepared bed.
The nomenclature of the Aspidistras needs much work. According to some references, over 100 species exist, and of each species, there are many cultivars. A list of species and cultivars reveals the diversity of this group of plants.
Cultivars of Interest
'Variegata' or 'Okame' - variegated with varied widths of white and green stripes running down the length of the stem.
Aspidistra is a favorite container plant, and is often displayed on porches and shady patios. Tolerance to low light levels makes it suitable for interior spaces where little light is available. It makes a great accent or edging plant for a shady area and is a superb background for low-growing flowering annuals. Florists and floral designers have long favored it as foliage material in their designs. Cut leaves are very long lasting and can be wired, cut, bent, or twisted in a variety of ways.
All of these attributes make Aspidistra a highly desirable addition to the garden. It may be time to take another look at the indomitable cast iron plant.
At a Glance
Family: Ruscaceae; also sometimes placed in Convallariaceae and Liliaceae
Other names: Cast-iron plant, barroom plant, iron plant
Origin: Eastern Asia, China
Water Use Zone: Moderate to Low
Size: 2-3 feet tall
Soil: Organic preferred, but also grows well in poor soil. Must be well-drained.
Salt tolerance: Moderate
Thanks to Kniphofia for the image of 'Milky Way.'
Thanks to Kell for the image of variegated Aspidistra.
About Marie Harrison
Serving as a board member for Valparaiso Garden Club, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and the Deep South Region, and National Garden Clubs takes a chunk of my time and attention. Being a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener crowds a bit more into my busy days. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at www.mariesgardenanddesign.com.