When it comes to hardy houseplants, few species can hold a candle to the Aspidistra. With their ability to tolerate dismal lighting conditions and less than stellar air quality, it is no wonder the this genus was a favorite among the middle class during the Victorian era. They were so common during that time period that George Orwell himself used them as a metaphor in his 1936 novel "Keep the Aspidistra Flying." Today they are nothing more than space fillers. Commonly known as "cast iron plants," they are a natural step up from silken foliage in waiting rooms and cubicles. They can virtually be ignored and still maintain their composure. For a houseplant, this is pretty incredible. However, this genus did not originate in the home. It is just as wild as any other plant out there. What are the Aspidistra and where do they come from?
With their long, strap-like leaves that seem to pop out of the dirt at random, it is not readily apparent that these plants belong to the same family as asparagus - Asparagaceae. Since the 1980's, botanists have described upwards of 93 different species within the genus. They are native to eastern Asia and hit their peak diversity in China and Vietnam. Many species within this genus are endemic to these areas.
Aspidistra as a whole are understory species, growing on the ground underneath dense canopies of trees and shrubs. This is why they can adapt so well to the low light conditions of homes and offices. Though they are mostly tropical in nature, Aspidistra have been known to cope with temperatures as low as −5 °C (23 °F). Despite their leafy appearance, Aspidistra have surprisingly beautiful flowers. You just have to know where to look.
Flowers are produced at the base of the plant. They are often covered by litter and soil. Despite their cryptic nature, they are nonetheless incredibly beautiful and complex. The flowers are spider-like with a large flattened stigma. They are also the key to identifying different species. Their pollinators are thought to consist mostly of flies, beetles, and the occasional fungus gnat. There is some evidence that some species of Aspidistra are even pollinated by amphipods in the soil. If this is true, it is surely one of the most unique pollinator syndromes ever discovered.
So, there you have it. One of the most commonly kept and ignored houseplants just happens to be quite interesting. Every plant has an evolutionary and ecological history that has shaped its kind over millennia. It just goes to show you that even the most common houseplants have a story to tell. Think about that next time you come across these growing in a stuffy waiting room.