During the Second World War, the English music-hall singer and comedian Gracie Fields kept the home fires burning bright with her boisterous rendition of “It was the biggest aspidistra in the world,” a song urging the British to rally round the things that made England great, including more homes and parlors with more “blooming aspidistras” than any other country in the world.
In 1823, John Damper Parks sailed from London to China on the Lowther Castle; on his return, he brought back roses, chrysanthemums and camellias — and Britain’s very first aspidistra. By 1840, the popular plant had already shown itself to suit the burgeoning Victorian generation to a capital “T.”
Amazingly impervious to bad air, poor light, unhealthy smoke and thick dust, it was the perfect adornment to set among Turkish cushions in dark and dreary “cozy corners.” And the aspidistra’s remarkable ability to withstand all sorts of ill treatment soon won it the nickname “cannon-ball plant” (or, in some circles, “cast-iron plant”). If you sought out the darkest part of any Victorian living room — beneath the beaded curtains and swags and next to the spindle-spooled whatnot shelf (loaded with souvenirs from China sent by Uncle Barnard) — there, in a great cloisonne pot, would be the family’s aspidistra.
The genus is Aspidistra (from the Greek for a small, round shield, referring to the shape of the flower’s stigma). The species was first termed lurida (from the allegedly lurid purple flowers that occasionally appear at ground level), but the species name used today is elatior (meaning “taller,” which has to do with the size of the leaf).
The flowers are more interesting than beautiful, consisting of six to eight brownish-purple sections — not really petals — that open to reveal a disk with eight stamens. In nature, they are fertilized by wandering slugs.
The leathery, dark-green leaves grow up to 2-1/2 feet long. Use a mix of equal parts potting soil, composted cow (or sheep) manure and sharp sand, and try to keep it evenly moist, although the indefatigable plant will go for weeks without water. Don’t repot the plant until the container threatens to break open; aspidistras like to tough it out.
Temperatures should always be above 50*F. These plants do not take kindly to full sun, so give them a spot in partial shade, especially during the hot summer months.
There is a very attractive variegated form, known as ‘Variegata’, whose leaves alternate green and white strips; a smaller variety, called ‘Milky Way’, has leaves beautifully shaded with ivory spots.
If you’re in a hurry to develop a big plant with a potful of leaves, buy a number of smaller ones and bunch them together.
Aspidistras are actually used as bedding plants a bit farther south, in Atlanta and along the Carolina and Georgia coasts. But here in the mountains, they will succumb to freezes.