Local gardening: Cast iron plants

January 31, 2013 

As the director of horticulture at Riverbanks Botanical Gardens, Andy Cabe has a varied palette available to him. That made it interesting when he was a recent guest on “Making It Grow!” and brought foliage plants with him. My favorite was a vase with six or seven different species and cultivars of aspidistra, all of which are completely hardy in the Midlands.

Aspidstra elatior is an old favorite for houseplants as it is tough as nails, giving rise to its common name of cast iron plant. Apparently it could withstand blasts of chewing tobacco juice in saloons or legislative chambers. Victorians may have even subjected it to occasional doses of that strong tea the English prefer, another potentially caustic solution.

We Southerners know it as a reliable and long-lived deep shade plant. All the large swaths of aspidistra growing under my pecan trees came as divisions wrapped in damp newspaper from older friends’ gardens. Although somewhat slow growing, aspidistra takes so little care that the overall effect is that you completely forget about it and then when you do notice it, it has filled its niche nicely.

For much of my life, the solid shiny green leaves were the only aspidistras around. Now there are, as Andy Cabe demonstrated, many choices for homeowners. Andy reminds gardeners to take notice of the hardiness zones listed for any new cultivar/species they try as a few are not hardy in our area. They come with variegated blotches on the leaves, stripes of lighter color, or even randomly spotted dots giving rise to names that suggest the night skies. Some of these are slower growing (with less chlorophyll they produce fewer carbohydrates) but if placed thoughtfully can brighten and enhance an otherwise drab spot year round with their showy, evergreen foliage.

Now it sounds as if all you have to do is plop a clump of this very forgiving and tolerant foliage plant in well-drained soil and go play bridge for the rest of your life. Not so. First and most important is site selection. When they say shade plant they mean it. Aspidstra wants 80 percent shade – that’s really, really shady. Nothing is sadder than a long planting of burned-up cast iron plant leaves. Ride down Devine Street and look at the unhappy aspidistra leaves in front of the beautiful Methodist Church.

Also, these very tough leaves don’t thoughtfully disintegrate as they age but tend to hang on, and on, and on, giving a very shaggy and sad appearance to neglected clumps. First on my to-do list (well, after I get the snow peas and asparagus crowns planted) is to cut all the clumps in my yard down to the ground. There are probably two thousand leaves that would otherwise have to be inspected and culled and no one has time for that. So before the new leaves emerge, I’m going to engage in wholesale cutting.

An added incentive to that chore will be spotting the remarkable and hidden flowers that this plant produces. Down among the leaf litter are small purple vessels, whose shape resembles those goblets we used to make with chewing gum’s silver wrappers. Perhaps pollinated by slugs, they add another layer of mystery to these sentinel-like leaves that have seen many a garden come and go, and, yet, as George Orwell described them, continue to fly their standards.

: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/ Check out her blog at the Making it Grow! page at www.scetv.org

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and the host of “Making It Grow!” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website

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