Aspidistras - Portraits, Fields and Flowers
In 1822, a large leaf plant with small dark and almost unnoticeable flowers was documented and named by Botanist John Ker Gawler. Taking the Greek for shield ‘Aspid’ and borrowing from a similar genus ‘Tupistra’, the Aspidistra was born and began to take the world of the middle classes by storm.
Originally found in shaded and damp areas of forests, it’s most common in China and Vietnam but can be found elsewhere in the across the Asian continent. They grow little dark flowers close to the soil, which misled people into believing that slugs and snails were responsible for pollination. It was later discovered that small organisms called Amphipods and even fungus gnats take care of that.
This naturally dark habitat made them perfect for dark and dingy Victorian homes. Once they were hardened in ‘hothouses’ across London, they began to become a popular feature of upper to middle class homes, commonly found in parlours, lobbies and even ballrooms. William Bull, a nursery owner in Chelsea, recorded selling one for 10s. 6d. in 1861. That’s equivalent to over £1.5k in 2023.
The Victorians loved Aspidistras so much that they took pictures next to them, just to prove that they could afford one, as if having your photo taken back then wasn't enough. A brag that might even be too much for Instagram.
They also were a favourite of still life painters, featuring in works by Samuel John Peploe, Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell and Mark Gertler.
Known for being able to withstand poor conditions caused by dim gas lights and the smoke from burning coal, they developed the name ‘cast iron plant’ as nothing was found to kill them. A quality that allowed the plant to move down the class rankings as electric lighting became prevalent in upper class homes and sleek interior design took over towards the 1920s.
The Aspidistra thus became something to be mocked. It represented (in the words of the Oxford dictionary) ‘a symbol of full middle class respectability’. George Orwell published his sarcastically titled novel ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’ in 1936, in which he describes the aim of the middle classes as ‘To settle down, to Make Good, to sell your soul for a villa and an aspidistra!’.
The typecasting went further in 1938 when the Gracie Fields song ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’ solidified the plant as a recurring music hall joke. What was once a symbol of wealth and respectability now couldn’t be touched with a barge pole.
People didn’t stop growing or forget about them though and they continued to be used mainly in floristry up until the 70s/80s when the plant made its way back into homes. Rather than being seen to symbolise or represent anything, they’re now appreciated for their elegant upright posture and luscious green leaves. Just as they should be when put as the centre piece of a room.
They're also pretty much always available in our shop, which is a testament to their popularity.