Looking for an indoor plant that’s easy to care for and almost impossible to kill? Then the cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) could well be the ideal houseplant for you.
Even if you’re the most absent-minded plant parent, it can withstand almost any abuse you throw its way. Forgetting to water it occasionally or putting it in shady room will not kill this plant – hence its common name because it’s as strong as cast iron.
Aspidistras were introduced to Europe in the 1820s. It became a firm favourite in households in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s due to its ability to cope with the indoor conditions of the time. It was one of the few plants that could thrive in homes that suffered from poor lighting and noxious fumes from coal fires and gas lighting.
The plant grows fairly slowly to a height of approximately 24” and 24” across (60cm x 60cm). The photo below is of me with one of my mum’s aspidistras. This has been passed down in the family since my great, great grandmother, so we can trace it back over 100 years!
The plain green variety is the best-known type of Aspidistra. But there are more colourful cultivars. ‘Variegata’ has beautiful cream-coloured stripes and ‘Starry night’ has lovely cream/yellow speckles on the leaves.
Aspidistras are happiest with light shade or indirect sunlight. They will not tolerate long periods of direct bright sunlight.
These plants are well known for being able to grow in shade or low light environments. So, if you have a north facing window this might be a plant you wish to consider. Likewise, if you want a plant for a side table away from a window, this could also work.
The various cast iron plants that I’ve grown up with have been well away from windows with bright light, and these have grown perfectly fine, without any problems.
Aspidistras can tolerate a wide range of temperatures making them perfect for growing indoors. An ideal temperature for them is between 41-68oF (5-20oC), but they can tolerate temperatures down to 23oF (-5oC) and up to 84oF (29oC). If you’re growing indoors as a houseplant, this is not an issue for most homes.
These plants can be placed outside in their pots during the warmer months of the year and brought back inside in winter. Some people even grow them outside all year round. Although they can tolerate low temperatures, they can succumb to heavy frost, so I wouldn’t recommend taking any risks with precious plants.
Cast iron plants don’t need lots of watering. In fact, overwatering can cause serious problems with your plant. Just water when the topsoil has become dry. Ensure there is adequate drainage and the soil does not become waterlogged.
They are quite tolerant if you do forget to water them occasionally. If the plant is completely forgotten about for a long period causing the leaves shrivel and die back, the rhizome in the soil can still survive. When the rhizome is watered, the plant springs back into life.
Aspidistras will happily grow in any good quality potting compost that has good drainage. The pot should have drainage holes, so that the roots do not become waterlogged.
Although aspidistras are easy to look after, you can get the best out of them by applying a liquid fertilizer. This is best done during the growing period of spring to late summer. Apply once a month, or according to supplier’s instructions. There’s no need to apply fertilizer in winter.
Due to their large leaves, cast-iron plants do tend to attract dust. It can be simply removed with a damp cloth which will allow your plant to look at its glossy best. Some owners believe that dust on leaves can interfere with photosynthesis, although I’m not sure of the scientific basis for this. I believe it’s more of a cosmetic practice to make your house plants look nice.
Propagating aspidistra plants
Aspidistra plants have underground rhizomes (a type of enlarged underground plant stem), which is the method by which they increase in size. The method for propagating them is to divide overcrowded clumps of rhizome. This is best done when you’re repotting your plant.
Unlike other house plants, cast iron plants do not have to be repotted on a frequent basis. In fact, they don’t particularly like having their rhizomes and roots disturbed. You can generally leave them 4-5 years before there is a need to repot. At this time, you can either move them to a larger pot or divide the rhizomes into two or more and plant them individually.
Pests and problems
These are not generally a problem with cast iron plants. Spider mites, scale insects and woolly aphids can be an occasional problem. These can all be controlled using a general insecticide.
Check for any signs of insects, mould or disease when you are buying new plants.
Common questions about Aspidistra elatior
Why does my aspidistra have brown tips on its leaves?
Brown tips on leaves are commonly found on this plant. There are numerous potential causes. First check if the plant is in direct sunlight. If it is, move the plant to a shadier area or where there is indirect sunlight.
Too little water can cause the tips to dry out. Check the soil and ensure that it has not totally dried out. Conversely over watering can cause the plant to release the excess water through its leaves and these can cause the tips to go brown.
Can aspidistra leaves be used in floristry and flower arranging?
We frequently use aspidistra leaves in our floristry business. The dark green foliage acts perfectly as a background to bright flower blooms. For a contemporary look, we either roll the leaves or bend them back on themselves, securing them in place with floristry fixative. We’ve found them to work well in corporate and hotel arrangements, wedding table flowers and pedestal arrangements.
Why are cast iron plants so expensive?
These plants grow slowly and therefore take up a lot of time and space in in the horticultural grower’s premises. This accounts for them being more expensive than other quicker growing houseplants.
Is aspidistra poisonous?
There have been no reports of aspidistra being poisonous to adults, children, cats or dogs.
Can a cast-iron plant purify the air?
The cast iron plant can remove harmful chemicals from indoor air. NASA carried out research which showed that they could remove chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde from the air, so increasing indoor air quality.