Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
February, 2009
Regional Report

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The aspidistra on the left was planted high in the soil. The one on the right is already sending up new leaves.

The Cast Iron Plant

My friend Sylvia asked me if I wanted her potted aspidistra. It had outgrown its container and she didn't have the courage to chop it into pieces. Knowing that I had just lost my job, she figured that I wouldn't mind working out my rage with a saw and a shovel. How right she was!

Aspidistra is a member of the lily family and native to China and Japan. It has glossy, strap-like leaves that grow directly from the soil and small, inconspicuous flowers that bloom on the surface. It was popular in the Victorian era, gracing drawing rooms. Its common name is the cast iron plant, probably due to its durable and forgiving nature.

It's odd that the aspidistra took the brunt of punishment for the termination of my television career, because an aspidistra was my very first house plant. When I moved out of my parent's home in Napa and found my first apartment in the city my grandmother, "Dearie," presented me with a gift of an aspidistra from her green house.

That plant stayed with me for decades. It finally found a permanent home at Sunset Magazine in Menlo Park when my husband and I moved from an apartment onto the boat. I believe the plant is still there, at least it was a few months ago when last I visited my friend Ricky, the head gardener at Sunset. The plant lives in a corner of the nursery looking very happy and well cared for.

It never occurred to me to ask Ricky for a slice of that plant, but I'm sure he would have obliged. I am now wealthy in aspidistra plants.

Sylvia delivered the overgrown aspidistra in a 50-gallon garbage bag. I have no idea how she got it out of its container or how she moved it because Sylvia is a tiny gal. Let's hope she had help.

Anyway, when I arrived at my office on Monday morning the abundance of aspidistra awaited me. It took a few days for me to get around to the actual slicing and dicing, but aspidistra is hardy and will put up with a considerable amount of abuse. I laid the bag on its side and slipped the plant out. It was a solid mass of roots, which were white and plump, meaning that the plant was in good shape. I began with my pruning shears but soon found that I need to bring in larger tools. I pulled out my pruning saw and resumed the dissection. The root ball was so large that the blade would only penetrate about 1/2 of the way through so I huffed and puffed and sawed and hacked away until I had the plant cut in quarters. Those pieces were still to large for any pot that I had on hand so I continued to slice and dice until I had eight nice pieces, complete with foliage and roots. Some I planted downstairs in the atrium and the remaining divisions I put into pots.

Here is what I have found; aspidistra likes to be planted deep in the soil. Most plants require an inch of root ball to stand above the surface to facilitate drainage, but aspidistra is exactly the opposite. The divisions that I potted high in the soil were not doing well, while those that were planted deeper are thriving. I remedied the problem by applying a layer of mulch to the plants that were planted high. They responded immediately by greening up. Who says that plants don't talk?

Anyway, my rage at losing my job has been quelled, my new plants are happy and I have enough aspidistra to last for the rest of my life, even if I live to be 100! I'm sure these hardy aspidistra will outlive me.

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