Tree Talk: Aspidistra — strong as an abiding love

Tree Talk: Aspidistra — strong as an abiding love

Tree Talk: Aspidistra — strong as an abiding love

Valentine’s Day stimulates all kinds of thoughts about love. What do you want from a sweetheart? Chances are the qualities you seek are about the same as those you want in a container plant: steadfast, dependable, low maintenance, good looking but not flashy, yet having a personality with universal appeal.

You’ll have to find the sweetheart on your own. Good luck. I can help you with the potted plant ... Aspidistra elatior. Most commonly called Cast Iron Plant, due to its ability to tolerate conditions under which most plants would croak, this plant has also carried the moniker Ballroom or Barroom plant (depending, I suppose, on where the grower first discovered it).

In the words of seasoned plant folk, aspidistra is “an architectural plant.” When at its peak, clumps of leathery, dark green, blade-shaped leaves,18 to 30 inches long, 3 to 4 inches wide, stand atop 8-inch stems. Floral designers love working with the leaves.

Aspidistra prefers bright, indirect light but, like Sansevieria, will tolerate a dark corner. It flourishes in the shady forests of China, Japan and Taiwan. Direct sunlight will cause the leaf tips to brown. Give it a generous pot and rich potting mix that drains perfectly. This plant detests soggy roots. It will tolerate bone dry conditions for an amazing period. But plant neglect, like animal neglect, is a crime you’ll pay for in Purgatory. Water when the top few inches of soil drys out.

Forget all the gimcracks of plant husbandry, like plant water meters. They make me scoff. Just push an inquiring finger into the soil to determine the depth of dryness. A thorough weekly watering is usually more than ample. Wipe the leaves of dust every few months.

If, like me, you have little patience for this dusting business, stick the potted plant in the bathtub, hose it down, let it drip dry and move it back into place. When old leaves yellow or begin to look ratty (after an unusually long period) just cut them off at ground level.

This plant has a quite interesting but inconspicuous bloom. The flower is a little starfish-shaped thing, bigger than a nickel, smaller than a quarter, which is puce in color and appears just above the soil in spring.

Children, grandchildren (and this gardener) squeal with delight when one demonstrates the patience to prowl around the soil level and discovers a bloom. It’s like mushroom hunting ... but don’t eat them.

Introduced into European horticulture from China in 1822, few plants have crossed the rigid class boundaries of Victorian Britain with equal zeal.

Considered a container plant, clumps of aspidistra stood in grand stone pots, flanking the staircases to aristocratic country houses. Inside, similar clumps, living in ornate porcelain jardinieres, topped pedestals in parlors and solariums. But so easy to grow and dependable was this plant, that it cheered the cramped quarters of East End London growing in chipped terracotta pots and leaky tin buckets next to dingy windows.

Out in the Cotswolds, hardly a servant’s cottage was without its prized aspidistra.

In 19th century London, many a performance by an elegantly clad music hall diva was concluded with the mildly naughty song “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World.” In 1938, Dame Gracie Fields recorded this song. It was a sensation, and the horticulture world has never been the same. From England, aspidistra made its way into the parlor pots of New England and, surprisingly, the shady beds (along foundations and under trees) in the Deep South.

In my garden, it has proven hardy outdoors. I have it in four spots around my little city garden, each growing next to a fence or the foundation of the house. It has survived all our winters for more than 20 years now.

In addition to the species, two cultivated varieties have developed. A.e. “Variegata” has wide, vertical stripes of cream, running up its dark green leaves. A.e. “Milky Way” has a galaxy of white dots on each leaf.

An undemanding winner, this is a perfect house plant for beginners. Plus, it is easy to propagate. In early spring, simply pull the plant out of its container or bed, shake the soil from the roots. You’ll find healthy rhizomes and roots. Cut off a vigorous piece that has at least two leaves and substantial underground support. Pot this up and replant the parent in fresh potting mix. The dark green leaves pop in a white pot or also complement a container solidly glazed in a primary color. Yellow carries an especially strong punch. Water both newly potted plants well. Let them drain. From that point on, it’s just the same easy-going love affair with beauty. Fertilize the plant, spring through summer, with liquid plant food, mixed to manufacturer’s directions.

Now, back to Valentine’s Day. Let’s suppose you think you’ve found that perfect sweetheart: steadfast, dependable, low maintenance, good looking but not flashy, yet having a personality with universal appeal. You are smitten but still uncertain of your beloved’s feelings. You’re at a loss for words, don’t know what to say next. Well, you might comment, ever so casually: “Are you into gardening? I’d love to show you my plants. I have the Biggest Aspidistra in the World ...”

Happy St. Valentine’s Day!