A Gardening Journal

'Snow Peaks' Aspidistra

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New foliage of 'Snow Peaks' aspidistra is, appropriately, a chilly and pure greenish-white. Each emerging leaf is furled so tightly it's no thicker than a pencil. An established clump could produce several dozen new leaves each Spring. Leaves that matured last season can block much of the show, so I've clipped away just a few to help reveal the "march of the pencils" display. 

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This cultivar is Aspidistra elatior 'Snow Peaks'. As each new leaf matures, what had been just a blush of green at the base expands higher and higher. For their first year, just the white at the pointed tip of the leaf remains. An established clump can have several score of leaves; with all of those white tips, the cultivar name of 'Snow Peaks' couldn't be more appropriate.

 

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By their second Spring, little of the "snow" remains. 

 

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With or without pigmentaton, aspidistra foliage is nearly as long lasting in a vase as it was when attached to the colony. Any leaves you cut away to better reveal the white, tightly-furled new foliage can make a bouquet of green that will last for weeks.

 

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See "Quirks," below, for another use for clipped aspidistra leaves.

 

Here's how to grow this oh-so-durable perennial:

Latin Name

Aspidistra elatior 'Snow Peaks'; also known as 'Asahi'

Common Name

'Snow Peaks' aspidistra

Family

Asparagaceae, the Asparagus family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 7b - 10b.

Habit

Thick.

Rate of Growth

Slow but steady. Plants take a few years to establish. Be patient.

Size in ten years

A clump perhaps eighteen to twenty four inches across at ground level, but twice that at the top: The stiff leaves jostle one another, forcing perimeter ones to lean gracefully outward. Twenty-four to thirty inches tall.

Texture

Dense and somewhat tropical, with scale and effect similar to that of Hosta

Grown for

its foliage: Leathery, vertical leaves emerge at soil level; at the base of each is a deep-green sheath. As the pictures above show, each young leaf is furled as tightly as a straw, and is a striking white with, at first, only minor portions of green: A thin top edge and a gradually-increasing blush of green originating at the bottom of the blade. As leaves lengthen, unfurl, and mature, the green blush becomes solid and extensive, and just the portion of white at the pointed upper portion of the blade remains. Even so, this is a powerful show. It's also a unique one: I'm not aware of another shade-tolerant plant whose variegation is exclusively at the leaf tips. (Leaves of variegated forms of Abutilon, Alocasia, Asarum, Caladium, Coleus, Colocasia, Convallaria, Farfugium, Hedera, Hedychium, Hosta, Filipendula, Philodendron, and various ferns are either colorful throughout their length, or limit their most contrasting color to the center of the blade.) The pointed tips of 'Snow Peaks' leaves hold their bright creamy coloring through the Winter, making the cultivar name very appropriate. By the second Spring, the snow on the peak has, so to speak, melted almost entirely away. Unless the performance of my colony is atypical, this progress of depigmentation is much different than what is described by other sources. One says that the white portion of the leaf intensifies during its first Winter; another says that the white doesn't develop until after the leaf has endured its first cool-but-frost-free Winter. Just as puzzling is that the striking display of brightly colorful, tightly furled emerging growth is not even mentioned.

 

its habit: Leaves emerge directly from shallow rhizomes, and have sturdy quill-like petioles for about a third of their overall length. Including the blades themselves, the leaves aren't likely to exceed thirty inches tall. The blades are five inches across at their widest. Aspidistra maintains its pleasing low-to-the-ground density regardless of the number of leaves or marginal growing conditions, which would cause most other plants to grow more sparsely. Stemless growth can't strain upward toward available light, nor does the length of the petiole change appreciably for colonies growing in brighter or dimmer explosures. Even when receiving the bare minimum of light, the colony doesn't become scrawny overall or thin at the base. This habit helps make Aspidistra an excellent groundcover where it's hardy—with toughness similar to that of Hosta, plus an even deeper affection for shade—and a famously long-lasting houseplant anywhere.

 

its tolerance of drought, low humidity, and dim light, which also contributes to the success of Aspidistra as a shade-tolerant groundcover as well as a houseplant: A potted specimen can survive for years—generations, even—with little or no direct sunlight, and only modest ambient light. Its metabolism is slow in such meager circumstances, so that it can survive weeks between waterings, especially when the colony is also resting during the short-day months of Fall and Winter. Further, the tough foliage is unusually durable, maintaining its color and not browning at the edges even with little moisture, light, or humidity. The leaves are so long-lasting, in fact, that houseplants of Aspidistra usually need occasional wiping with a damp cloth to remove dust. Aspidistra growing in dry shade in the garden might need the same wipe-down, or washing off with a hose. Note that the plant's tolerance of drought is, partly, a result of its preference for low light. If a pot were moved into higher light, more watering would be necessary to keep the plant hydrated at the higher level of activity that would result. Regardless of any increased moisture, if the light is too strong, the foliage will scorch. Plus, Aspidistra doesn't tolerate overly-moist ground, let alone poor drainage, no matter whether it does receive the maximum strength of sun it can tolerate. See "Where to use it" and both "How to handle it" boxes for recommendations for Aspidistra-friendly sites in your garden as well as your house, plus tips for care that ensure sufficient moisture but avoid too-intense light.

Flowering season

Early Spring. The flowers emerge at ground level, and are usually hidden by the foilage. They are peculiar rather than pretty, looking like bottom-side-up little starfish (and hungry ones at that), or wayward miniature pepperoni pizzas. Coloring can be dramatically different from one form to another; see "Variants," below. The interior of the flowers of 'Asahi' is reddish purple, and is surrounded by about eight stubby cream-colored petals.

Color combinations

The flowers are ephemeral and, in any event, not showy at any distance, so the coloring of the foliage of 'Snow Peaks' is what could inspire creative color partnering. Alas, the guidance seems mighty non-specific: Green goes with anything and so does white. The dense growth of a thriving clump, plus its leaves' sturdy upright habit and broad, smooth-edged sword shape are more helpful in suggesting plant partners that are informed, instead, by contrasts in texture, size of details, and overall scale. See below.

Plant Partners

The large and simply-shaped leaves of 'Snow Peaks', combined with their unique "snow-capped" tips, make them a ready foil to foliage of complex shapes and detailing. The challenge can be to find partners that appreciate as much as aspidistra the low light, good drainage and occasional drought that aspidistra not only sails through, but requires. How many ferns would fail in what to them would be piteously dry soil? How many woodland plants couldn't endure the lack of even occasional direct light? If you can supply nutrient-rich soil that, nonetheless, has impeccable drainage, and in a site that never lacks for heavily-dappled shade and decent-to-good humidity, you might succeed in handling Aspidistra like almost any other shade-garden stalwart. A woodland garden with a pronounced slope would probably be ideal.

 

When growing Aspidistra under the more specific and sterner conditions that it thrives in, however, you'll need to stick to its competitors in ability to revel in dim light and occasionally dry soil: Mahonia, Nandina, and Aucuba. Mahonia bealei is just as pleased not to receive more than fleeting direct sun; its tall, open canes with sharp-spined palm-like leaves are a dramatic contrast in height as well as texture. Mahonia repens is reported to be even more tolerant of shade and drought; it matures at a foot high, so could be the groundcovering fronter to Aspidistra. Nandina domestica is available in cultivars that mature from little over a foot high to eight feet. It needs at least dappled sun, and tolerates full sun; taller forms could be planted to the south and west of Aspidistra to ensure its required deeper shade. In climates with a cool Winter, the leaves of some Nandina cultivars ('Firepower' in particular) turn bright red, which would be a joyful addition to the green and white of 'Asahi'.

 

Aucuba japonica is one of the few equals to Aspidistra for enjoyment of dry shade; it, too, absolutely requires good drainage. The foliage of A. japonica 'Serratifolia' is solid green but quite slender, so is a strong textural contrast. Leaves of 'Picturata' are splashed with bright yellow. As with Nandina, Aucuba tolerates full sun, and can mature to eight feet high, so could help shield Aspidistra from it.

 

The dry soil and deep shade underneath most large conifers should also be a happy context for Aspidistra, as would be the north side of tall hedges, and the shady side of groves of high bamboo.   

Where to use it in your house or garden

Aspidistra needs siting that prevents exposure to strong sun, which can bleach the leaves quicky, unattractively, and irrevocably: Because scorching isn't reversible, and the plant grows slowly, the only near-term correction is to clip the damaged foliage away. The longer-term correction—new replacement foliage—could be months away.

 

Instead, choose sites that are shielded from direct south or west sun. On this basis alone, then, Aspidistra is well suited to life indoors. It thrives where little else will, without direct sun and, even, with little ambient light. But, given that growth is slow even under ideal circumstances, and the only thing better than a medium-sized clump of Aspidistra is a larger one, it makes more sense to provide a nurturing location: Weak direct light, as would be achieved by siting near but not directly in an east window, or by placement of the container right on the sill of a window that faces north. Plants are unlikely to escape scorching from placement in south or west windows unless their light is heavily diffused by shutters or gauzy curtains. 

 

Outdoors, choose locations that are shaded by walls or buildings, by dense foliage of hedges or shrubs, or by high and broad shade from overhead trees. Aspidistra's remarkable tolerance of dry shade is, if anything, an advantage in its wider usage: It's the rare building whose perimeter doesn't create patches of ground whose lack of sun has defied most other plants. And then there are interior courtyards and strips under broad eaves, both of which might receive little direct sun or precipitation.

 

Where solidly hardy, Aspidistra is a year-round presence. Especially where low maintenance is a priority, it can be a godsend. In particular, the liveliness of 'Asahi', its elegant yet large detailing, and its sheer bulk would be particularly harmonious near contemporary architecture, against which more traditional and/or intricately-detailed horticulture can look weak or twee. Drought tolerance and slow growth also make all forms of Aspidistra excellent candidates for large containers in shady locations that need plantings that thrive year after year.

 

If ever there were a plant born for climates that are mild and also plagued by cloudiness or fog, Aspidistra is it: In such otherwise dim and misty settings, plants could be planted in full "sun." Those neighborhoods of San Francisco west of Twin Peaks are reknowned for being in the city's fog belt. Would they also be Valhalla for Aspidistra?  

Culture

When growing Aspidistra indoors, provide nutrient-rich soil to which you have added plenty of sand or fine gravel so that good drainage is fostered. While a saucer is essential to catch excess water, fill it with gravel so that the pot's bottom isn't in contact with its water.

 

Outdoors, almost any shady site whose soil ensures good drainage will do.

How to handle it: The Basics.

Where solidly hardy, plant in the garden in Spring or Fall, watering enough to ensure establishment. In Zone 7, plant in Spring only. When Aspidistra is used as a houseplant, plant or transplant to a larger pot only when the clump is active—ideally, at the beginning of its new cycle of growth in Spring. Water only when the soil surface is dry; Aspidistra doesn't tolerate soil that is saturated longer than briefly.

 

Young colonies need little attention other than the occasional removal of any individual leaf that might have reached the end of its natural lifespan (two to three years would be typical), become scorched by unexpectedly strong sun, or physically damaged by, say, being snapped by too-vigorous sponging-off. Growth is slow even under the best conditions. Colonies seem only to thicken within themselves, but are, in fact, also expanding outward.

 

Like peonies, crinums, daylilies, and hostas, colonies of aspidistra can thrive indefinitely without division or resetting. Also like peonies and crinums, colonies can be lifted, divided extensively, and replanted if, for example, larger coverage as a groundcover is desirable, or if sections are being potted up for plant sales or friends. Peonies, hostas, and daylilies, are best lifted and divided in the Fall; even where hardy, aspidistras (and crinums) are best manipulated in early Spring, before new growth has emerged. Fork around the entire colony to loosen it, then lift and shake off excess dirt to better reveal the rhizomes. If might help to let the dug-up clump drop a foot or even two down to the ground to begin separating soil and rhizomes that may well have been linking together for years or even decades. 

 

Attempt to pull apart the now-loosened-up colony into sections by hand; if needed, complete the job with a soil knife or pruners. The newest growth of the clump will always be around its perimeter; if dividing only into larger segments, ensure that each has a portion of it. If dividing down to the last nubbin, ensure that each of these smaller portions has a point or two where new growth is imminent.

 

Colonies growing in containers can thrive for many years without needing reworking. But few of us will ever have an aspidistra colony that has become way too big; it is hard to conceive of the phrase "completely out of control" as applying to any aspidistra colony, no matter how old. Don't put a starter plant into the large pot it may not really need for fifteen years; you're much more likely to overwater and cause the plant to rot in a volume of soil so large that its roots could never use up excess moisture. Instead, repot clumps into only somewhat larger pots every two or three years; it's better to underpot, or wait another year and, so, ensure that the clump has become rootbound before potting up. In general, it's better to handle potted aspidistras as if, despite their huge leaves and hunger for deep shade, they were much closer relations to desert cacti than to shade-loving ferns: Allow plants to grow in what for most other plants would seem too-small containers. Water only when needed and, when it doubt, don't. Repot into a container only modestly larger—two inches more in diameter at the most.

 

Very old and large potted colonies may finally need renovating, and yet there will eventually be a practical limit to the size pot you can comfortably handle. Instead of repotting into a container that is unwieldy, unpot the clump in early Spring as usual, but this time, rather than teasing (or thumping) apart the rootball, simply slice the whole rootmass into two or three asymmetric portions with a soil knife or a sharp shovel. Replant the largest portion (or two together) back into the current pot, allowing only an inch or two of fresh soil all around. Pot up the remaining portion, which might in itself still be of specimen size, to give to a grateful friend.

 

Replant or repot at approximately the same depth as before. Help smaller bare-rooted sections remain stable after planting by putting in a small stake and tying twine around their current leaves. Leave in place until any new foliage has reached full height, by which time accompanying growth of new roots should provide sufficient anchoring.  

 

If planting Aspidistra as a groundcover, keep in mind its slow rate of increase. Plant starter plants a foot apart if you can access and afford enough of them; if not, plant two feet apart and interplant with a low and "flowing" groundcover (such as Galium odoratum or Lysimachia nummularia ) that will fill the space as needed, and retreat willingly as the aspidistras take over.

 

Although Aspidistra will endure, seemingly, forever when growing in marginal circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine any setting where fuller and quicker growth wouldn't be desirable. So, even when using the plant as filler in a dim interior courtyard, or as a foundation-hider when planted under eaves that permit neither direct sun (good) nor direct rain (bad), check at least once a month when clumps are more active to see if supplemental water is needed. Remember, however, that you can drown Aspidistra much more easily than you can "drought" it. Especially if its preferred shady settings also permit little air movement, watering may not be necessary for a surprising length of time. As above, handle the watering of an aspidistra more as you would a cactus, by leading from behind rather than attempting to irrigate a slow clump into more vigorous activity. It's fine to fertilize once a month in Spring and Summer. 

 

Especially in container colonies, which will by definition always be somewhat smaller than any clump growing year after year in the ground, mature foliage of houseplant aspidistras might need to be removed only when individual leaves have begun to fail or have become scorched or damaged. At the colder end of its hardiness range—in Zone 7 in, say, North Carolina and Virginia—foliage of garden clumps of Aspidistra can become damaged by Winter cold. Cut affected leaves off at ground level in early Spring before new foliage or flowers have emerged. In climates so mild that Winter injury isn't a problem, or when colonies are used as houseplants, aspidistra can sustain several years' worth of foliage simultaneously. The oldest generation of leaves may check out en masse as the new season's crop of leaves emerges. It might be more practical as well as pleasing, then, to clip out the oldest leaves all at once, before they begin to fail one by one. They are easy to distinguish, especially in 'Snow Peaks': They'll have little or no "snow peak" and the green color of the blade is likely to appear faded in comparison to that of younger leaves. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

The show of a miniature grove of white, perfectly vertical, pencil-thin furled leaves emerging from the ground in Spring suggests that the prior years' foliage be cut away entirely before the new emerges. With otherwise healthy mature leaves, this would be a drastic anything-for-art act that would probably reduce the colony's vigor, if only temporarily. An aspidistra growing in a climate that allows it to thrive but whose Winters are sometimes severe enough to cause foliar damage is perhaps the best candidate for this prophylactic removal of all of its mature foliage: Every few years, most of it is likely to need cutting away, anyway.

 

Such a clipping would also provide better exposure for the flowers, which, otherwise, are nearly hidden. It may only be possible to enable any clump of aspidistra to display such a "full Monty" once every few years. But the rarity of the event, let alone its striking show of, seeming, white pencils arising through a cluster of dwarf purple starfish, would put the show towards the top of any aspidistraphile's bucket-list. 

Quirks and special cases

Those stiff green plastic sections, usually cut with a grass-like top edge, that separates this-and-that in bento boxes? Traditionally, these were cut from aspidistra leaves.

 

Appearing at ground level and, usually, hidden by the leaves, aspidistra flowers are clearly not hoping to be serviced by pollination vectors, such as bees, that approach flowers from above. Because slugs can show a fondness for the foliage of aspidistra colonies growing directly in ground, they were thought to be the pollinators, too. (This would enlarge the membership in the Society of Plants Pollinated by Slugs from one—hardy gingers—to two.) Alas for the gingers, aspidistra growing in Japan has been shown to be pollinated by small terrestrial crustaceans called amphipods. Elsewhere, other obscure insects (springtails, fungus gnats, and some species of flies) are also thought to assist in pollination.

Downsides

If only Aspidistra were hardier, then more gardeners could grow it directly in their gardens.

Variants

These are boom years for aspidistra in Western horticulture. From the 19th to mid-20th Centuries, Aspidistra elatior was known as an unkillable parlor plant. (One common name, cast iron plant, suggests how tolerant and enduring a potted aspidistra can be.) The plant has long been a workhorse groundcover for deep shade in the Deep South—yet another reason it was dismissed by sophisticates. But as is so typical for genera with species that are native to Japan and China—think peony, pine, bamboo, camellia, chrysanthemum, and hosta—many exciting cultivars of A. elatior (such as 'Asahi') have long been in favor across the Pacific. Foliage of 'Snow Cap' stays white at the tips year-round; this is also known as 'Asahi Improved.' The intense cream variegation of 'Okame' seems startlingly similar to that of Furcraea foetida 'Medio-picta'. The variegation of 'Sekko Kan' is, if possible, even more extensive and showy. Along with 'Snow Cap, this cultivar tops my aspidistra wish-list. The leaves of 'Seium' are densely speckled with yellow, as if in homage to Farfugium japonicum 'Aureomaculatum'.

 

Many other cultivars are appearing. Leaves of 'Goldfeather' are longitudinally striped with greenish yellow. Leaves of 'Morning Frost' are huge—to three feet long—with a few white striations and a lighter overlay on the upper half of the leaf. On and on.

 

Further, scores of other species of Aspidistra are now recognized. Just in the last few years, so many have been identified for the first time that the genus has expanded to over a hundred. All are native to China and Vietnam. They vary in overall size, in narrowness of leaf and, to a lesser extent than with A. elatior, in variegation. Alas, there doesn't seem to be a Siberian cousin; the tolerance for cold doesn't seem to extend to climates more severe than Zone 7, and sometimes only Zone 8.

Although aspidistra flowers are borne at the soil level and are therefore hidden from casual view, enthusiasts dote on variations in petal size and color, floriferousness, and general oddity. Unless you are monomaniacal about your aspidistrias, the numerous cultivars just of A. elatior will satisfy your acquisitive as well as curatorial urges. 

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By division.

Native habitat

Aspidistra elatior is native to China and Japan. 'Asahi' is shortened from asahiharan, which means rising sun; the cultivar originated in Japan.

 
 
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