Arno KingAspidistra, not just a ‘cast iron’ plant

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.

Aspidistra elatior forming large clumps at Bronte House

Aspidistra elatior forming large clumps at Bronte House

Cast iron plant grows in very low light, like under this timber deck

Cast iron plant grows in very low light, like under this timber deck

 

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.

One of the many unidentified Aspidistras

One of the many unidentified Aspidistras

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.

An attractive spotted leaf Aspidistra

An attractive spotted leaf Aspidistra

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.

Aspidistra elatior flower

Aspidistra elatior flower

 

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.

Aspidistra elatior
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.

An attractive Aspidistra elatior cultivar often seen in Sydney gardens - possibly Japanese 'Akebono'

An attractive Aspidistra elatior cultivar often seen in Sydney gardens – possibly Japanese ‘Akebono’

 

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' forms at attractive groundcover

Aspidistra lurida ‘Ginga’ forms at attractive groundcover

Aspidistra lurida 'Ginga' in a tropical style garden

Aspidistra lurida ‘Ginga’ in a tropical style garden

 

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' is a distinctive plant

Aspidistra sp ‘Singapore Sling’ is a distinctive plant

 

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.

Yet another attractive spotted leaf Aspidistra

Yet another attractive spotted leaf Aspidistra

 

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.

 

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Arno King

About Arno King

Landscape architect, horticulturist, journalist and keen gardener, Arno is a regular contributor to Subtropical Gardening Magazine. Based in Brisbane, Arno grows a wide diversity of unusual plant species and has particular interests in growing edible plants in creative settings and biological and organic gardening. Brisbane, Queensland

28 thoughts on “Aspidistra, not just a ‘cast iron’ plant

  1. Finally someone likes this age old tuff as boots plant—-about time—
    I have it growing in the Adelaide hills in all manner of places.
    Good on you Arno—–maybe you might start something here.
    Cheers G.

    • Hello Graeme

      good to hear from another fan of these plants. Like you, I am trying Aspidistras in many shady places in the garden. Of course as I am still establishing my garden, I wish they would grow a little faster. However I know that I will be pleased they are slow growing in a few years time, as the garden matures. There are some fine cultivars of Aspidistra in Adelaide, so keep your eyes peeled.

      Arno

  2. What an interesting post. Arno..I am one of those people who ripped out aspidistras with gusto! and then, thirty years later, started putting them back as they are so good in dry shade, and nothing else thrived in those places in my sandy, alkaline soil. they look just great with some TLC. I am now going all out to find some of those gorgeous cultivars! Thank you.

    • Hello Libby

      glad to hear you are now a fan of these tough plants. I suggest you keep your eyes peeled when visiting friends with older, established gardens. They are often keen to share divisions of plants from their gardens. I’m interested to hear that Aspidistras will grow on sandy alkaline soil. I am sure they will respond to generous amounts of compost incorporated in the soil. You may also find that foliar feeding will avoid nutrient deficiencies that may occur due to the high pH and from competing tree roots.

      Arno

  3. Arno- great article. I just adore Aspidistras- those meaty beefy deliberate and substantial leaves play a role in many gardens. The trick in Melbourne is to plant in enough shade so the leaves are not bleached in the sun.
    Years ago I gardened for an older colourful woman who would dance around her garden and sing the Gracie Fields’ song, “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”. She loved the idea of planting fast growing trees and shrubs that would provide a shady canopy in a relatively short period of time so she could increase her Aspidistra elatior population.

    • Hello Lisa

      I agree with you that most Aspidistras look their best when grown in shade. A couple of my photos were taken of plants growing in less shady environments and there are scorch marks on their leaves.

      You must have had fun working for your colourful gardening client. She is a real Aspidistra fan!

      Arno

  4. I too have a love/hate relationship with these ..hate them under my back steps cos they are sad and neglected and look thus, but a spotted one I that I loved, I put in a far too exposed position, and is burning and wilting. Yours look fantastic, Arno, so am re enthused …….
    I also recall the George Orwell book ” Keep the Aspidistras Flying”, indicating the signature parlour plant of wartime northern English working class was a metaphor for drab, uniform, unimaginative lives.

    • Hello Julie

      I wasn’t aware of Orwell’s book. I will have to find a copy.

      It is really interesting how plant associations can affect the way we respond to plants. Many of my clients have had negative associations with plants which grew in gardens of people they did not like. I remember one client who was forced to take piano lessons from a lady who had hydrangeas planted next to the front door.

      So interesting how the Aspidistra could have been so popular in Victorian England and then fall completely from grace. We seem to see this a lot with plants. Many plants which were the rage in the 70s and 80s are treated with disdain these days. I suspect we will get a similar response to Magnolia grandiflora, Liriope ‘Evergreen Giant’, Lomandra longiflora, Duranta erecta ‘Sheena’s Gold’…………. There is such a diversity of wonderful plants we can use in our gardens. Perhaps they are just the metaphor for their owners lives.

      Arno

  5. I inherited my cast iron plants with my old garden, and they are doing well in the sun in Dubbo!
    They’ve crept under the fence from next door, and are fairly neglected except for occasional water. Talk about tough and hardy.
    I love the big bold leaves which look a little tropical, impossible really out here. They make great additions to flower arrangements trimmed, folded, shaped or ‘au naturale’.
    Well done on resurrecting an old favourite.

    • Hello Rhonda

      Aspidistra is really a tough plant as you pointed out. I am surprised they are doing so well in the sun, as they are usually a shade loving plant. Try adding some compost to the soil, some mulch and a little fertiliser to your clump and I am sure you will appreciate the result.

      Arno

  6. What a laugh! I have just come in from planting 30 of these beauties in our new tropical garden in preparation for my ‘Singapore Sling’ themed garden party next Saturday night! Now I have four days in which to find the delightful spotted variety of the same name. A coincidence? I think not. I think we are bang on trend Arno.

    • Hello Linda

      I hope the ‘Singapore Sling’ party was a great success. Did you track down the Aspidistra ‘Singapore Sling’ plants in time?

      Arno

    • Hello Steven

      glad to hear my article inspired you. I think there is generally a spot in most gardens (if the winters aren’t too cold) for an Aspidistra to flourish.

      Arno

  7. I don’t know…lots of brown tips on the photographs you shared. My main objection to cast iron plant is plants often look tattered. Well-written article and I will take a new look at cast iron plants due to your enthusiasm.

    • Hello Barrie

      Yes now you mention it, I note that there are a few brown tips on the plants I photographed. Often they were snapped ‘on the run’ and you will see by the colour of the plants that some are getting a little too much sun.

      My suggestion is to plant in the shade, prepare the soil with lots of organic matter and a little general fertiliser and water during dry periods until established.

      Brown tips are generally caused by erratic moisture, drying winds and nutrient deficiencies. These can all be addressed with thoughtful positioning and good preparation. The leaves also last for many, many years so annual leaf trimming can spruce up a clump significantly. There are not many plants that have such low maintenance requirements.

      I am sure there is a spot for an Aspidistra in your garden.

      Arno

  8. Hi Arnaud
    I love all your article from the Garden Drum and I am also trying to track
    more Aspidistra, especially the Singapore Sling. Can you help??? Merci.
    Claudine

    • Bonjour Claudine

      I haven’t seen Aspidistra ‘Singapore Sling’ for sale since I wrote this Blog. It was being grown commercially and for sale at Garden Centres. I hope that this Blog will encourage more nurseries to grow it.

      Arno

    • Hi Sandy – the Aspidistra cultivar you want is called ‘Shooting Stars’. It was grown commercially by wholesale growers Aussie Winners a couple of years ago but I’m not sure if they’re still growing it. You can contact them via their website to see if it’s still being sold and where you might find it. http://www.aussiewinners.com.au/

  9. The small, narrow leafed Aspidistra with spotting that you are calling Singapore Sling is A. ebianensis. Plant Delights in the US market it under this name, as does a specialist tropical plant nursery in Redlynch, Cairns.

    • Hello Peter
      Thanks for your comment. Yes this plant is commonly linked to Aspidistra ebianensis and I almost used this name in my article. However I thought it would be prudent to check the flowers first before making any definitive conclusion. There are a lot of these spotted narrow leaved cultivars and much discussion regarding the correct names for them.
      My plants are quite large and I haven’t had a good look for flowers for a while. I will let you know what I find. If you come across flowers, please send us an image.
      Arno

  10. Hi have just got aspidistra leopard and.intend to grow in the house in a container
    But unsure where to position as not sure what light levels it needs and does it need humidity
    Could put into bathroom which is quite light but sunless can anyone advise me thanks Richard

    • Hello Richard

      The name leopard suggests a spotted Aspidistra, most likely ‘Ginga’, but possibly ‘Singapore Sling’

      ‘Ginga’ is a very tough Aspidistra and prefers semi-shade to deep shade and is also quite hardy and will grow in most coastal areas of Australia – so likely will grow outside in your garden. It is also a great indoor plant and will do well in relatively light rooms.

      I suspect ‘Singapore Sling’ likes slightly warmer conditions, as I have only seen it growing outside in the subtropics and tropics.Your brightly lit bathroom sounds great, but a shaded option in the garden is another option if you live in coastal areas in central or northern latitudes of Australia.

      I hope this helps

      Arno

  11. Hello Arno,

    I have a five year old Asahi Aspidistra with 8 leaves in a pot (8.5 ” surface dia. and 10″ height) I keep it indoors with adequate light (mediterranean climate) water when soil is dry and two or three weeks fertilizer 20/20/20 period in the growing season. Each year the plant produces 2 or 3 leaves but this year there is no new growth. Can you please help.

    Thanks and regards,
    Carmel Bonnici

    • Hi yes I have the same aspidistra and struggle at times keeping the leaf markings
      With regards to growth would expect may be four leaves a season if you have made no changes to feeding and location I would be looking repotting in a mixture of John innes no3 half mix and a peat based multi purpose house plant compost mixed together I find John innes on its own gets to compact and of course a slightly larger pot
      Aspidistra should be repotted about every three years as after that the compost no good even with feeding
      One more thing when watering soak well and let drain to remove salt build up in the compost good luck

      • Hello Carmel and Richard
        ‘Asahi’ is a stunning Aspidistra with its white tipped leaves. However find that many plant cultivars with this leaf colouration are very slow growers and I put this down to the leaves having very low levels of chlorophyll and therefore more limited potential to produce sugars. I also find these plants need good light levels, but can also burn very readily. They generally grow best in shad house with bright light or under trees the produce a bright filtered light.
        In relation to your plant Carmel, possibly it is not the ideal plant for indoor culture. If your winters are not too cold, it might do better outside in the right location. You might have better success with a green or variegated Aspidistra. If the leaves now have less white and more green it may indicate that light levels are not ideal.
        I agree with Richard regarding repotting and soaking the plant in water to remove salts. I also wonder if your fertilising regime is a little to heavy for this slower growing plant.
        Arno

        • Think generally agree with good light not sunlight but would not plant outside but treat as a house plant by all means put out in the rain and on cloudy days.
          But would not plant outside as I have found leaves become shredded and look in poor health. As most aspidistra now come from cultivated stock they make better house plants under realistic conditions.

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