Aspidistras don’t seem to rate highly these days with many gardeners. Yet you will find them planted in tropical, subtropical, warm temperate and Mediterranean gardens across the globe. They may be the brunt of jokes and delegated to the back of the garden, but they have many things going for them – for they are long lived, well presented and reliable work horses. The thing these plants do best is to grow in dry shade and look lush and leafy. And there is always a place in a garden for this kind of plant.
When we think of Aspidistra, it is usually Aspidistra elatior the cast iron plant that comes to mind. However there are some 100 species of these plants and the majority were only identified in the last 30 years. They vary immensely in size and leaf shape, but are characterized by being evergreen, herbaceous perennials with creeping stem and lush leaves which arise directly from the rhizome at ground level. They have long been popular in cultivation in Asia, particularly in China and Japan. Ornamental cultivars with compact growth, spotted or striped leaves have been grown for many centuries and gradually made their way to the west.
Aspidistras have unusual flowers. You have to bend down and pull back the foliage to find them, for they sit just above the soil. They can be fleshy, star shaped, starfish shaped, lily pad shaped, bell shaped, urn shaped or cup shaped and come in a wide range of colours. Although many books suggest that they are pollinated by slugs and snails, this has proved to be a myth and it is now generally considered that they are pollinated by various terrestrial crustaceans.
The genus is native to Asia, particularly Guangxi province in Southern China and throughout Vietnam. However they are also found in India, Cambodia, Laos and Japan. The taxonomy of these plants was ignored until around the 1980s and hence most of the species have been described since this time. Many of these species were already in cultivation, so you will find many unusual and unnamed Aspidistras if you start hunting around.
It is time that we start to pay more attention to these plants, as in these days of small, over-shadowed, low maintenance gardens, these plants certainly have a place. They are also slow growing, which I regard as being a great advantage. If you are time poor, as most people seem to be these days, the last thing you need in the garden is fast growing plants. Fast growing plants may provide instant gratification, but this comes at a price, for fast growing plants generally demand attention. If you live in a warm climate, where there plant growth is constant, or on acreage, slow growing plants need to be at the top of your list.
Aspidistras belong to that rare group of plants that always look presentable. The older dead leaves seem to disappear under the lush new growth. Maintenance can be the once or twice a year removal of dead or damaged leaves to give plants a facelift. Like many plants, they tolerate crap, but give them a little love and they will look so much better.
This includes amending soil to incorporate plenty of organic matter, adding humic acid, providing a topping of deep mulch and applying a balanced fertiliser containing ground rock minerals and essential macro and micro nutrients. If you want your plants to grow more quickly and produce lush and leafy growth, water them during dry periods.
Occasionally leaves will be damaged by pests – slugs, snails or chewing insects. More and more, I am suspecting this is a wake-up call to gardeners to boost plant nutrition. I also suspect that many aspidistras, along with a vast array of tropical plants, come from locations with acid to neutral soils but high levels of available calcium. Our forebears used to regularly apply lime to ‘sweeten the soil’, but this practice seems to be dying out and many garden plants are suffering for this fact.
Well known as the cast iron plant, Aspidistra elatior was immortalised by Gracie Fields in the song ’The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’. At one time the plant was regarded as a symbol of Victorian middle class values and respectability. As well as tolerating shade and neglect this plant also tolerated gas fumes, which killed many other indoor plants. It certainly is a hardy plant and will happily live in a pot for decades if not centuries.
The flowers are claret coloured and star shaped. Depending on age, the outer edges of the petals are a pinkish to creamish in colour.
The plants in my garden were all “throw outs” from gardeners who were renovating their gardens. I would suggest that if you keep your eyes peeled you will spot this plant lurking under trees somewhere at the back of a neighbor’s or friend’s garden. Gardeners are generous people and will gladly provide you some divisions to establish in your own garden. I suspect that trailer loads of this plant have ended up at the dump when young, enthusiastic gardeners decide to do a “garden makeover”.
Cast Iron plant is available in a number of variegated cultivars. The most common, ‘Variegata’, has broad stripes of white and an upright character. Another plant you will find in older Sydney gardens has a chartreuse streak down the centre of the leaf. It may be the old Japanese cultivar ‘Akebono’. Another cultivar found in our gardens and has finer cream striations to the leaf.
Aspidistra lurida ‘Ginga’
A cultivar of Aspidistra lurida is also regularly seen in gardens. It has cream spotted leaves that have been likened to the sky at night. Ginga means galaxy – an apt name. Many people assume that it is a variegated form of Aspidistra elatior. However if you take a closer look you will note the leaves are smaller, stiffer, slightly narrower and generally held in an upright position. The flower are also different – lily pad-like and a rich purple.
This plant is currently widely available from nurseries and sold as Aspidistra ‘Milky Way’. So now is the time to get one for your garden.
Aspidistra sp. ‘Singapore Sling’
Also known as Aspidistra sp ‘Vietnam’or ‘Leopard’, this plant is not as common as the above species, but has been grown in Australia for some years. It has long narrow leaves spotted in creamy yellow. It is slow growing and prefers warmth, shade and moisture. The plant is very common in Thailand, Malaysia and of course Singapore. It is quite distinctive and despite much time spent on the internet, I really have no idea what the species could be. I will have to keep an eye on my plant and find some flowers and then have another stab at ID.
There are many more species of Aspidistra in Australian gardens and many were introduced in early times and have remained unloved and unidentified at the back of shadehouses, under trees or hidden in botanic gardens. I have quite a few in my own garden and had hoped that while researching this article, I would finally be able to name them. This has not been the case. I am now more confused than ever, but I have become aware of just how large and diverse this genus is. I suspect that many of the plants in my garden, whilst small in size, may in fact be cultivars of Aspidistra elatior and Aspidistra lurida as well as other species.
So if you catch me in the shady parts of my garden on all fours, camera in hand, you will know what I am up to. I aim to do an update one day and include a few more of these interesting plants.
If you don’t have some Aspidistra in your own garden, maybe you should be considering these plants for one of those dry shady spots in your garden which have been a constant source of annoyance.