Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
The old saying that "everything old is new again" definitely applies to the cast iron plant, Aspidistra elatior. Honestly, I had never even heard of this plant until two years ago, but it was introduced into the U.S. over 100 years ago and was very popular during Victorian times.
The name "cast iron plant" is a reference to its reputation of being a tough plant that can survive poor conditions, particularly low light. It's another one of those "indestructible houseplants" like others I've written about recently. You would have to actively try to kill the cast iron plant by some way other than low light and no water. It just shrugs those conditions off and keeps going.
The cast iron plant has moved in and out of fashion over the years. Even during Victorian times when it was a popular plant for dimly lit parlors, some considered it to be a "lower middle class" plant. The 1936 novel by George Orwell, titled Keep the Aspidistra Flying chronicles a young man living in poverty in 1930's London. Throughout the book he notices cast iron, or Aspidistra plants nearly everywhere he lives, thriving despite the deplorable indoor conditions in which they exist.
People living in the Southern U.S. are probably more accustomed to seeing the cast iron plant in their outdoor landscapes, where these plants are widely used in shade gardens. Cast iron plants are not considered to be tropical plants—they are said to overwinter successfully as far north as Zone 7b.
Despite the fact that the cast iron plant is in the lily family, they are pretty plain in appearance. Their wide leaves are dark green and leathery with a few wrinkles. They resemble corn leaves and reach lengths of twelve to twenty inches long. Growth is slow, with new leaves arising from tough, rhizome-like roots.
Flowers on this plant are borne at nearly ground level and tend to go unnoticed. These one inch brownish-purple flowers often blend in with the soil or are hidden by foliage. One small dark berry may follow the bloom.
Though some may think the cast iron plant is a rather plain or even boring plant, there is a lot of diversity in the Aspidistra genus. The genus is native to the forests of eastern Asia, with most species originating in China. There are 93 recognized species of Aspidistra, but scientists speculate there may be 100 to 200 additional species in the wild that have not been described yet.
There are wild species with variegation or spots on the foliage, but people have also bred cultivars of Aspidistra elatior, the most common species grown indoors. The cultivar 'Variegata' has white stripes running the length of the leaves, and 'Minor'is a dwarf version with white spots on the leaves.
One great feature of the cast iron plant is it is very easy to propagate, making it a great plant to share with fellow gardeners. Simply cut out a portion of the plant that includes both leaves and roots and plant it in its own pot.
My experience with growing the cast iron plant is a lot like other "indestructible" plants. While it tolerates a whole lot of neglect, it does better with a little bit of attention.
My plant began as a division from a larger plant. It sat neglected for a couple of months before I got around to transplanting it from its small plastic pot. It never showed any signs of suffering in the plastic pot, and for a long time it didn't do much of anything in the larger ceramic pot I planted it in. I sat it on my north-facing front porch that summer and pretty much forgot about it, watering it when I watered other plants that also spend the summer on my porch.
About six weeks after transplanting it, the cast iron plant began to grow. It doubled in size that summer—from three leaves to six leaves. While some people might find this slow growth disappointing, to me this means less transplanting to larger and larger pots.
I brought the plant inside for the winter, and the plant has not done much of anything all winter except stand guard in my dimly lit front hallway. I'm confident that once its summer vacation starts this year, it will resume its slow but steady growth.