PLANT OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Cast-Iron Plant, Iron Plant, Barroom Plant
Scientific name: Aspidistra elatior
Explanation of scientific name:
- Greek, meaning "small round shield", describing the stigma (the pollen receiving
portion of the flower).
Latin, meaning "taller".
As the various common names suggest,
the cast-iron plant is one tough species. It ranks right up there with
snake plants and philodendrons as being an almost indestructible houseplant.
Capable of surviving under low light conditions coupled with extremes of
temperatures and irregular watering, it's the perfect plant for those
individuals who cannot seem to keep plants alive indoors.
This native of China is admittedly a
plain-looking plant. Its slow-growing, but long-lived leaves are dark
green and grow right out of the soil to a height of about 2 feet. The
stems remain just below the soil surface and thrive even in a small pot of poor
soil. As a member of the Lily family of plants (Liliaceae), one
might expect the cast-iron plant to have showy flowers like many of its
relatives (day-lilies, tulips, and hyacinths). Cast-iron plant flowers,
however, are quite modest and are often overlooked even when in full
bloom. A dull brown-purple in color, the one inch flowers appear at the
soil surface and are often hidden by the foliage. A small, dark,
one-seeded berry may follow the bloom.
The plant can be vegetatively
propagated with ease. Removed from its pot, the stems can be sectioned
into pieces with a few leaves and some roots. Each piece, when potted up
will slowly but surely yield a new plant.
Introduced into Europe and then America over 100 years ago as an
ornamental, the cast-iron plant was utilized extensively during Victorian times
as a parlor plant. It was considered by some to be a lower-middle class
plant, and has gone in and out of fashion over the years since then.
By no means a tropical houseplant, cast-iron plants survive near the
Himalayas. The species has been used extensively in the southern US as a
ground cover under large trees. There are reports of the plant growing
year round outdoors in southern NJ, and I have found that it survives outdoors
on our campus, if planted in a sheltered area.
People have developed a few cultivars of the cast-iron plant. 'Variegata' has white stripes that run the lengths of the leaves and 'Minor' is a dwarf version of the species with white spots on the leaves. In spite of these fancy versions, the cast-iron plant remains best known as a plain but reliable survivor. It comes as no surprise that George Orwell's novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is about a dull bookstore clerk.
A Cast Iron plant growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.