Keep the aspidistra flowering

A few weeks ago we bought a handful of really interesting Australian plants at the Friends of Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne plant sale. A a week or two later, at the Friends of Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne sale, we came home with a cardamom and an aspidistra. There were plenty of interesting species for sale but we wanted something plain and green for inside our new home.

I suppose the cardamom is a little interesting but in Melbourne and Sydney it won't flower or fruit. The aspidistra? Well we wanted a hardy indoor plant for a tough spot. That's what it's know for and that's why we wanted it. Propped on a small table in our dining room the commonly called Cast-iron Plant is living up to its name.

As often happens when you live with a plant, we discovered something new about it. It flowers! Of course I suspected it might flower, it being a flowering plant and all that, but I really hadn't thought about how it would do it. I don't think I've ever owned or grown an aspidistra before.

If you'd asked me what kind of flower it would produce I might have conjured up something rising to the height of the leaf, perhaps white in colour, dull no doubt.

Thinking more deeply, and botanically, I would have checked its familial relationship. Discovering it was in the family Asparagaceae, I might have switched to a tall flowering stalk with non-descript small flowers, perhaps white or maybe just greenish. Like an asparagus.

Nowadays though the family Asparagaceae is a broad church, including Yucca, Agave, Hosta and even the Australian Fringe-Lily Thysanotus. So the flower could look like anything really.

What it does look like is a star fungus, or perhaps one of those underground orchids that normally doesn't break through the litter. The bud, emerging from an underground stem, splits open like a sea anemone. Our flowers both have eight triangular petals, or petal-like bits.

In the middle...well it's a bit obscure down there. Looking at pictures and descriptions on the web I gather the male and female bits are fused together in the purple mass you can see in my top picture, with the stamens bent underneath (and not visible). All this is designed to attract tiny insects that live in the soil litter.

Within days of these flowers erupting in our pot, Terry Smyth, one of the enthusiastic horticulturists at Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens and someone unashamedly passionate about Chinese plants, took me for a tour of our Southern Chinese collection on the river side of the Ornamental Lake. Here it's dark and dry, a lot like our dining room. Here are quite a few aspidistras.

Not just Aspidistra elatior, the Cast-iron Plant. There are nearly a hundred described species, many of them only discovered in recent decades, and no doubt more to be discovered throughout Asia. On our tour Terry showed me this charming little spotted one, Aspidistra lurida. No flowers though. I had to return home to the darkest corner of our dining room to find those.

*Originally posted as 'Aspidistra flowers interestingly' but what a missed opportunity! Now renamed to pay homage to the cleverly titled George Orwell book I read as a young botanist and idealist.