Marginals: Aspidistra elatior

by Andrew Keys on January 13, 2010

Pronunciation for this entry provided by Christina Salwitz of Personal Garden Coach. Christina and I are pals on Twitter, and wouldn’t you know our first conversation there was about this plant.

Pronunciation // Cast iron plant, as Aspidistra elatior is commonly known, was EVERYWHERE when I was growing up in the South. My mother and grandmother both grew multiple mass plantings, as do many, but I rarely see these portrayed in photos. Did it never catch on elsewhere? Who can know? Because let me tell you, Aspidistra makes one cool groundcover in the driest of dry shade. Ideally it gets to be evergreen, but it can do a neat and lesser known trick: it can die back and return from the root.

With that in mind, in 2008, I returned from my parents’ in Zone 8A/trending 8B, with a handful, and set about choosing a spot to experiment here in Zone 6A/trending 5B. (Snicker. Eyeroll.)

I picked the sheltered southeastern wall of our kitchen and planted my babies right up against the cinder block foundation, reasoning the radiant warmth of the block would do them well. I, um… Didn’t water them… Much? If at all. I may have forgotten them. (You may note this as a trend the longer you read this blog. I hate watering.)

Winter came, I piled up fall leaf litter on top of the Aspidistra and abandoned them to marauding rodents. Their evergreen leaves poked up through the snow, and when spring came and I cleared the mulch away. No rodent damage, but boy, they looked worse for wear. I deadleafed but was careful to save what had any speck of green, reasoning the plants could nourish themselves with any spot with which they could photosynthesize. They were unsightly but out of the way, so meh. When ALL the previous year’s leaves finally turned brown and crispy, I cut them off and called time of death. That was probably June.

In July, wonder of wonders, I noticed brand new leaves. From every plant. The photo above is where we were September ’09. Here are a couple more lame photos (my photo-documenting had fallen off at this point in the season):

What lies ahead for my Aspidistra? Who can know? I’ve always said Aspidistra, like diamonds, are forever. We’ll see. We’ve had temps in the singles without insulating snow cover this winter, so I’m concerned for all my marginals. If they do make it, I’m going to prune back some of those partially green leaves in the coming spring to see if it forces new growth more quickly. Stay tuned.

Aspidistra are members the the family Ruscaceae, whose diversity amazed me when I discovered it. We’re talking evergreen shrubs like Ruscus and Danae; common houseplants like Dracaena and Beaucarnea; succulents as varied as Dasylirion and Sanseveria; and other more humble groundcovers lilyturf (Liriope), mondograss (Ophiopogon) and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria). WOW!

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