Plant 156

Aspidistra elatior Blume (Asparagaceae)


Cast iron plant

The cast iron plant has long been a popular houseplant because it is able to endure neglect! Its ability to withstand poor light and poor air quality too - exacerbated by coal fires and gas lighting in Victorian and Edwardian homes - meant it became a mainstay of many drawing rooms of the period.

Aspidistra elatior, an understorey plant native to Taiwan and the southern islands of Japan, is one of approximately 100 species in the genus. The genus Aspidistra was first described in 1822 by the British botanist John Bellenden Ker Gawler. Members of the genus are evergreen, clump-forming perennials with tough rhizomes growing just beneath the surface of the soil. The rhizomes produce broad, dark glossy green, leathery, lance-like leaves up to 60 cm long, with long petioles and pronounced parallel veins running along their length.

In contrast, the flowers are well hidden but worth searching for because of their curious shape. They appear at ground level and are three to four centimetres across, cup-shaped and fleshy. The outside of the flower is cream coloured, with a rich burgundy and pink interior. Aspidistra pollination and fruit dispersal is something of a mystery. Few observations of pollinators have been made but candidates as pollinators of Aspidistra elatior include slugs and, in some Japanese populations, sand fleas. However, self-pollination is highly unlikely since the stigma is disc-shaped and flattened with a receptive upper surface and the stamens are held underneath, within a perianth tube. Other Aspidistra species are pollinated by small midges and other flies, with the flowers sometimes used as brood sites for their developing larvae.

In cultivation, Aspidistra elatior is a robust, slow-growing plant and with the right conditions can become large plants. Plants may also be long lived, even gaining the status of family heirlooms as they are passed from one generation to the next.

Aspidistra has provided inspiration to writers, engineers and painters. Aspidistra elatior is the subject of still life paintings by the early twentieth-century Scottish colourist Samuel Peploe. The plant's association with middle-class drawing rooms was used by George Orwell in his biting, satirical novel Keep the Aspidistra flying (1936). The plant also appeared in music hall routines, such as Gracie Fields' The biggest aspidistra in the world. The song inspired the code name, 'Aspidistra', for a British radio transmitter used during World War II. At the time, the transmitter was the biggest in the world.

Further reading

Vislobokov NA et al 2014. Pollination of Vietnamese Aspidistra xuansonensis (Asparagaceae) by female Cecidomyiidi flies: Larvae of pollinator feed on fertile pollen in anthers of anthetic bisexual flowers. American Journal of Botany 101: 1519-1531.

Kate Pritchard