Aspidistra: the carefree houseplant

Every Victorian parlor, with its horsehair sofa, flocked wallpaper, and plush upholstery, had ferns near the window and a sturdy aspidistra in the corner. Like hemlines and haircuts, plants have waves of popularity. Although aspidistras were ``in'' during the 19th century, today it's often hard to find one.

Yet an aspidistra is worth seeking out. Often called the cast-iron plant, this one is reliable and tough, tolerating lower light intensity and less care than just about any other commonly grown houseplant.

An aspidistra will grow in almost any type of soil. It will grow most vigorously, however, in a humusy, rich potting soil that is kept evenly moist and fed occasionally with a high-nitrogen fertilizer.

For optimal growth of those 24-inch elliptical leaves, balance feeding with light intensity. Aspidistras will survive in dark corners but will thrive near a window. The more light, of course, the more food the plant is getting.

Some plants are very fussy about temperature, but not the aspidistra, which is perfectly happy with a normal house temperature. It is also quite cold-tolerant and is used as a ground cover in parts of the South and California that have occasional light frosts.

Pests are never a problem with aspidistras in the house. If you like to put all your houseplants out in the garden for the summer, however, keep the pot of aspidistra generously supplied with slug bait. Aspidistras are like caviar to a slug or snail.

If, like the comedienne Gracie Field, you want ``the biggest aspidistra in the world,'' just keep potting it into larger and larger pots. Each year, as the new leaves mature, prune out the old ones. Rather than one huge aspidistra, I find it's more manageable to divide the plant as it becomes crowded, keeping my plants in nothing larger than 8-inch pots.

Aspidistras do flower, but you will probably not even notice the insignificant brownish flowers at soil level. The leaf's the thing with an aspidistra.

The dark-green leaves of the Aspidistra elatior flow in a soft, graceful curve. Florists and flower arrangers delight in these leaves, both for their inherent grace and their flexibility. You can coil an aspidistra leaf around your hand and it will retain the shape you have created.

In addition to Aspidistra elatior, there is also a variegated form, A.e. variegata, as well as a dwarf, A.e. minor. If you are not able to find them at your local greenhouse, all three are available from Country Hills Greenhouse, Route 2, Corning, Ohio 43730.

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