PLANT OF THE WEEK

Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department

 

CAST-IRON PLANT 

 

Common names:  

Cast-Iron Plant, Iron Plant, Barroom Plant

Scientific  name:        Aspidistra elatior

Explanation of scientific name:       

Aspidistra   - Greek, meaning "small round shield", describing the stigma (the pollen receiving portion of the flower).

elatior          - 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.

Cast-Iron plant

A Cast Iron plant growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.