Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Aspidistras Are Practically Immortal

Aspidistra elatior - Cast Iron Plant
As I stroll through cities from Washington, DC to Fort Myers, FL and westward to Dallas, TX, I can't resist glancing between buildings, through gates, over fences and walls to see what's growing.  Very often there's not much to see; the average landscape does not look like something to be featured in a national magazine.  But there are usually a few things worth noting; aspidistras are often among them.

In the narrow, bleak spaces between city townhouses, crowded around gas meters and covered with dust, you'll find aspidistras.  In dry, thin soil under trees they thrive.  Stuffed in neglected pots, they wait for someone to come and dribble a little water; often just a styrofoam cup of melted ice and lemon slice.  Yellowed by too much sun, ragged from neglect, they persist.  Often they are as neglected indoors, or worse.  Orwell's description of one in his novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying is apt:

"It was a peculiarly mangy specimen. It had only seven leaves and never seemed to put forth any new ones. Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the aspidistra. Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it--starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem, even mixing salt with its earth. But the beastly things are practically immortal. In almost any circumstances they can preserve a wilting, diseased existence."

Despite its treatment, Aspidistra (pronounced ass-pi-DIS-truh, meaning "shield-like") is a noble genus.  It boasts over 90 known species native to Asian forests from east India to China and Japan.  The bold leaves inspired its name.  They arise, stemless, from underground rhizomes.    Flowers are insignificant.

Aspidistra elatior (pronounced ee-LAY-tee-or, meaning "taller") is the most popular.  In fact, it is the only one known to most gardeners.  It is also known as Cast-Iron Plant or Bar-Room Plant, signifying its toughness.  The dark green leaves, 4" wide, may grow to over 30" in height.  Variegated cultivars are not unknown.  It is drought tolerant and deer-resistant.  Use it in in partial shade to full shade in USDA climate zones 7 to 11.  It prefers well-drained, acid soil with pH ranging from 4.5 to 5.5.

Before planting, take a soil sample to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a small fee, they can run a lab test and tell you what your soil may need.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep.  Composted manure may be incorporated into the soil.  If you choose to use synthetic fertilizer, incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 3 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 8" of soil.  Aspidistra cooperates with kindness.  Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Space them 24" to 36" apart.   Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than that of the growing containers.  Water the plants in their pots.  Place them into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the roots. Do not cover the top of the root mass with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed.

Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 3" deep.  The mulch helps retain soil moisture, so you can water less frequently.  It also helps suppress weeds.  Though quite drought tolerant, there's no need to abuse.  Irrigate when necessary, but allow the soil to dry between watering.

Aspidistra lends a wonderful tropical appearance to the home and landscape.  Considering that and its few requirements, you should include Cast-Iron Plant in your garden and home.

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1 comment:

James said...

I absolutely love my Aspidistra elatior. I might say its one of the most perfect neglectable plants.