Gardeners everywhere look for plants that will grow in the shade and one of the best choices is the cast-iron plant. This really is a lush tropical looking plant that can take a lot of abuse from the gardener and yet thrive. On the other hand put it in full sun as many gardeners do and it is like kryptonite to Superman.
Don’t get me wrong, it might not die. Your neighbors will wish it would because it will look so ugly. But use it in the shade and you will look as though you have earned the green thumb award in the neighborhood.
The cast-iron plant is known botanically as Aspidistra elatior and is in the lily family. It is cold-hardy down to around zero. Most gardeners say zones 7-10 work for this plant, although a few very reputable nurseries are now saying zone 6. Those of you in colder areas could not find an easier house plant to grow indoors. You can grow in containers year-round and move inside once winter arrives, or can choose to grow in the landscape, digging a clump to overwinter indoors in a decorative pot.
The cast-iron plant is tolerant of various soils but does seem to look its best in fertile, well-drained beds in shade or very little morning light. When you choose your dig, your planting hole should be two to three times as wide as the root ball but no deeper, planting at the same depth it is growing in the container. It really makes a nice groundcover. If this is your goal, space plants 2-3 feet apart. After planting add a good layer of mulch.
Feed established clumps in the early spring with a slow release 12-6-6 fertilizer or something similar at a rate of 1 pound per 100 square feet of planted area. Though they are extremely tough, a little water during prolonged dry periods will pay dividends with prettier specimens. Mature clumps appreciate being cut to the ground in late winter every three to five years. This acts like a rejuvenation, pruning flush fresh-looking stalks of healthy leaves.
The cast-iron plant forms a large clump that can be divided and moved around the garden as needed. Simply dig with a sharp shovel to make your new clumps.
The cast-iron plant reaches about 3 feet tall and screams to be planted boldly with drifts of impatiens, ferns and hostas. Use with elephant ears or shade-loving gingers for a tropical garden. One of the prettiest plantings I have ever seen used the cast iron in a Japanese garden complete with fountain, gravel, Japanese painted fern and dwarf mondo grass.
I and other fans of the traditional green cast-iron plant know that there are some striking variegated varieties like Morning Frost and Lennon’s Song which have long creamy yellow stripes. Milky Way and Fuji-No-Mine are also well worth searching out. You will be surprised how many choices you really have. The cast-iron plant is one tough, beautiful plant, when used in the right spot. I hope you will give them a try in your garden.
Norman Winter is executive director of The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, and author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.