Everyone’s maiden aunt and granny had one, and Gracie Fields sang of having the biggest one in the world. A dreary, dark green, flowerless clump in a pot in a corner of the parlour. Often forgotten about for weeks on end they tolerated heat, drought, coal and gas fire fumes and could hover apparently on the verge of expiry for years on end, before responding gratefully to a splash of water or a quick dusting. It’s not surprising they were known as the cast-iron plant.
Famous as a joke plant aspidistras were, according to the OED “often regarded as a symbol of dull middle-class respectability” – thanks largely one suspects to George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. BUT how and why did they become so popular and where on earth have they all gone?
After all you’d think a cast-iron plant would be just the sort of thing that would appeal to time-poor and knowledge-lacking modern generation. Yet it’s cacti and succulents that are all the rage not the Aspidistra? What has the poor plant done wrong to be so ignored?
Aspidistra first reach Britain in the early 19thc. It was named by John Bellenden Ker the editor of the Botanical Register where it made its first appearance in 1822 as Aspidistra lurida and was described as “very curious” and believed to be “previously unrecorded”. It was also given the unprepossessing name of the “Dingy Flowered Aspidistra”. The specimen was drawn in the hothouse of Colvin’s nursery in Chelsea where the plant was assumed to be native of some tropical country “but of the place whence or the time when introduced nothing seems known that can be relied upon, nor have we met with any sample in either the Banksian or Lambertian herbariums.”
It was included in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1824 with slightly more impressive almost black flowers but again with no further information.
But it was not just available at Colville’s nursery because by 1823 it was listed in Loddiges’ catalogue of hothouse plants
Benjamin Maund’s Floral Register of 1835 notes not just A. lurida which it says might have been sent from China in 1822, but also Aspidistra punctata introduced from China in 1824. No-one at this point had any real idea of where Aspidistra fitted into the botanical hierarchy.
The Transactions of the Horticultural Society for 1830 provide the first real evidence about A.punctata. It was bought from China in 1824 by John Damper Parks who was collecting for the Horticultural Society. The report by John Lindley noted differences between it and A.lurida, and says that it “first flowered in a bark-bed in February and March 1826” in the Society’s gardens at Chiswick.
But its seems to be only from the 1860s that Aspidistra becomes popular. It begins to appear in a broad range of nursery catalogues, althugh not always cheaply. A.Puncatata with a white spotted leaf was being sold by William Bull’s nursery in Chelsea for 10s6d in 1861. A new species A. elatior was imported from Japan about the same time and both green and variegated leaf forms of it were being sold by Barr & Sugden in 1867.
Aspidistra lurida only gets a passing mention as “more curious than ornamental” in Lowe & Howard’s Beautiful Leaved Plants : being a description of the most beautiful leaved plants in cultivation in this country of 1862 and although it fares slightly better in Shirley Hibberd’s New and Rare Beautiful-Leaved Plants of 1868 with a couple of paragraphs it is not illustrated in either work.
Hibberd also covered it in his magazine Floral World. He puts Aspidistra in the lily family and noticed its ability to withstand a wide range of conditions, suggesting it is “admirable” when grown in association with ferns. He also belies the popular idea that its solely an indoor plant, saying he grew it outdoors in his own garden on a bank outside his study window, alongside grasses, epilobium and artemisias amongst other things.
William Robinson’s Gleanings from French Gardens of 1868 mentions Aspidistra as a having “an important place in the decoration of apartments” in Paris, but it wasn’t yet as popular in Britain.
By 1881 Robinson’s journal The Garden carried a short piece claiming the Aspidistra is the best indoor plant. Neverthless, despite its apparent popularity, there were still no illustrations.
But how to grow it? It was apparently very easy. Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1898 carried a brief note in its Books section saying: “We know of no manual on the cultivation of the Aspidistra” but then adding ” no gardener of even moderate experience should need one.”
However, as you’d expect its care was covered in books such as Thomas Baines’ encyclopedic 1894 Greenhouse and stove plants, but despite this very little was actually known about the way the plant worked. It was known to flower but, for example, how, asked a reader in Gardeners’ Chronicle did its seeds get fertilized?
The answer might surprise you, unless you already know how and where Aspidistras flower.
As you can see they flower at ground level, or sometimes even below ground level, directly off the rhizome. To makes matters more difficult the flowers are often brown or maroon and hard to spot so many people had probably never realised their own plant flowered.
The answer came from another reader in the next issue, based on evidence provided by botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh. It was thought that the Aspidistra has the most unusual pollination ecology among all flowering plants, since it was pollinated by, of all things, slugs.
However, an article in Ecology as recently as November 2017, based on direct observation of their ecosystem in Japan, has revealed that there A.elatior is hardly visited by slugs but was pollinated by, of all things, gnats and not just any gnats but a special sort: fungus gnats.
The oddly shaped purple, fleshy flowers are often hidden by leaf litter, but this seems to be a clever evolutionary strategy because their appearance has been compared to mushrooms – which one of the foods of choice for these fungus gnats. In addition, the flower has a strong musty odor which again helps fool the gnats into thinking they are visiting a mushroom. The researchers from Kobe University reported that “fungus gnats that visited the plants quickly dived into the center of the flowers, attached a large amount of pollen to their bodies, and flew away.” They also saw the gnats arriving at A. elatior flowers carrying pollen from other flowers, and crucially they observed that these flowers produced fruit.” So no slug involvement but I’d guess that pollination by crawling or low-flying gnats is still probably a pretty unusual pollination system.
Such research is a sign of the plant’s change of fortunes. Until recently Aspidistras did not attract much botanical interest. It was even thought there were less than 10 species but in the 1980s a large number of new species were discovered and described from China. Since then more have been found there and in Indochina, particularly Vietnam, so that now it’s estimated there are 90-100 species. Aspidistra were thought to belong to the Liliaceae (a family which includes lilies, hostas, and tulips) and within that to the subfamily Convallariaceae (which includes lily-of-the-valley and Solomon’s seal) but the latest reclassification in 2016 has put them in the Asparagaceae family & subfamily Nolinoideae. [Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, Vol 161, 1 October 2009]
And now back to its history:
Aspidistra thrived in everyone’s home in the early years of the 20thc, but perhaps becasue of its ubiquity and its ability to withstand pollution and neglect it came to represent – as novelist George Orwell put it – the middle class’s desire for respectability. In Orwell’s nightmare it was the done thing “to settle down, to make good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra!”
In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published in 1936, the main protagonist Gordon Comstock rents a room in Willowbed Road which “contrived to keep up a kind of mingy, lower-middle-class decency… In quite two-thirds of the houses, amid the lace curtains of the parlour window, there was a green card with ‘Apartments’ on it in silver lettering, above the peeping foliage of an aspidistra.”
His room also contains an aspidistra: “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.”
“It was about this time that he came across The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and read about the starving carpenter who pawns everything but sticks to his Aspidistra. The Aspidistra became a sort of symbol for Gordon after that. The aspidistra, flower of England! It ought to be on our coat of arms instead of the lion and the unicorn. There will be no revolution in England while there are aspidistras in the windows.”
But, as you can see,Orwell was not the only one – or even the first – to lampoon the aspidistra. Gracie Field’s song didnt help either. In 1938 she sang of the aspidistra “in the flower pot on the whatnot near the ‘atstand in the ‘all” which had been there for years. In a botanically unusual attempt at hybridization it was crossed with “an acorn from an oak tree” to make it “strong and tall”, with surprising consequences. Listen to the rest of the song in the original version at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XROMw3Z4e0
or in the shorter version she sang on the Parkinson show in 1977
After the end of the First World War war the poor plant became “a music-hall joke”, as “out of fashion as antimacassars, tall stained glass bookcases and mutton-chop whiskers” [Yorkshire Post, 16 Feb 1954].
It just didn’t fit the new streamlined style of interior design and was replaced by rubber plants and cactus in the houseplant fashion parade. Or at least it was in design and interior decor magazines.
But the aspidistra remained popular with many ordinary people, especially those who had had their plants for decades and decades. Its clear from newspaper reports these plants were still lovingly cared for, divided up and shared around.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there were reports that they were coming back into fashion – but this was largely for use in floristry [Birmingham Post 28 Nov 1963]
But still asidistra were grown….and now at kong last, after years of neglect they are apparently coming back in fashion once again not just for indoors but for use outdoors in the garden too.
For more on this contemporary revival see Bob Brown’s article “High Flying Aspidistras”, in The Garden, January 2013 and then check his Cotsworld Garden Flowers catalogue for 29 different sorts, and then look at the more than 100 different “cast iron plant clones” [their words not mine- see if you can spot any/many differences between them!] available from the American specialist growers Plant Delights …and maybe you’ll join your maiden aunts and grannies and soon have your own aspidistra on “the whatnot near the ‘atstand in the ‘all.”