Iron Plant - long and windy, so grab a cup of coffee

ssuarkc(3a)January 8, 2013

Warning - this is long.

Apparently, I'm the only person in the world who knows how to kill an iron plant, which is supposed to be one of the easiest carefree plants on the planet. Or at least, I seem well and able to make one extraordinarily unhappy.

This is a plant that apparently likes low-light corners, thrives on neglect, yadda yadda.

When I first got the plant, it was from my late grandmother, and it was enormous. Big tall dark emerald green leaves. She had a lovely green thumb and I used to help her all the time in her greenhouse which grandpa built off the south side of their house so she could just walk from the living room into her greenhouse area. It was beautiful in there. She potted the plant in very high-drainage mix so the water literally runs through. When she died, my dad had it outside on the north side of the house during the summer and only watered it when the soil was rather on the dry side, even when the summer temperature hovered around 38 degrees Celsius (nearly 100 F).

Then he gives me the plant. I tried to repeat the conditions, except in Alberta, we never get scalding hot temperatures. So, it sits inside my house with an average daily temperature of about 20 degrees Celsius. At first, I put it in front of the north sliding glass door which never has direct sunlight, but still provides good light. I maintained the same watering - only watering when it got rather on the dry side and let the water drain out (never sitting in water). It developed brown tips and started to die back. Dad said too much light. So, I moved it into the corner beside the sliding glass doors, where it is considerably darker. It sits underneath a golden pothos and a spider plant, but behind light-hogging 6' tall variegated fig and 5 foot high Norwegian pine, (all of these plants are thriving). Leaves started to die back, turning brown and withering away. Thinking maybe I was underwatering, I increased the watering frequency, (again NEVER letting it sit in standing water). It died back even faster, and I was losing lots of leaves, although curiously it was also trying to grow new leaves at a furious pace, but they never got bigger than 8 inches before looking burnt.

Then me thinks to myself, "ok, maybe the soil is full of salts", so I flushed it, but good. The water running through was coffee colored, so I ran it until it ran clear, let it drain well and put it back in its spot. That seemed to revive it a bit and started to grow many new leaves, so I thought this was progress. I continued with watering about every 7-10 days (when the soil felt dry within top 2 inches), always letting it drain thoroughly. The water always promptly runs through, so the drainage is excellent.

Now the plant got to about 8 inches high with many leaves, but now it is browning again and stopped getting taller. As well, instead of being solid dark emerald green, the leaves have pale green streaks on them. So, is this a nutrient deficiency? A watering problem? A soil problem? Lighting? The plant is now sulking and not growing any new leaves at all. A very unhappy plant, indeed.

I also looked very carefully for bugs - no aphids, mealy, spiders, nothing. Not even those little fungus gnats.


You know, I usually do pretty good with plants and have a wide variety in my (jungle) home, all healthy, all with varying needs and demands. Except for 2... an elephant ears which is also sulking and this iron plant that I fear I may lose. Everything else is happy and healthy.

I guess we can't win them all... but I would rather not lose my grandmother's plant as it reminds me of the days and hours she and I spent in her greenhouse.

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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

How long has it been since this plant was repotted?

Is your plant an Aspidistra?

    Bookmark   January 8, 2013 at 5:58PM
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Mine doesn't grow at this time of year either. It's a temperate zone plant, not tropical. I let mine get quite dry between waterings. I think it prefers a cool room during wintertime.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2013 at 6:20PM
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I have similar issues. I also have a jungle of different plant in my home, all of which do fine! This plant is the most annoying plant I own! There is nothing cast iron about it-- if we're talking about Aspidistra. Mine are a constant source of fern scale and are yellowing all the time; no matter how dry, how moist etc.... Now mine don't receive good light, but that's supposed to be ones of its greatest virtues! They would get better light if they weren't covered in scale! That in itself is why Im balding at 25! Nothing touches this scale! Anywho.....

I have no sentimental attachments to mine other than I paid ALOT of money for them here in Michigan. I have had mine for 2 yrs now and it seems every winter they react like this. The nice thing about them is they do have a tough rhizome underground. When I take mine out in the spring they almost immediately change there tune. I get the nicest flush all summer of gorgeous emerald green leaves. I remember last year in spring I had 7 leaves when I put it outside and by the time I brought it indoors in fall I had 25 new leaves. All gorgeous! For me this plant just pouts all winter. But come spring it changes. I wish mine would keep all its leaves!!! As long as you keep it moist I think the rhizome will remain alive and in spring I think I will change for you. It's a mysterious plant indeed!

    Bookmark   January 8, 2013 at 6:31PM
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Had mine for a really, really long time come to think about it--one of my oldest actually. Finally got bored of it as a houseplant and planted it outside. Looks much better now. And unlike the Hosta, the deer won't touch it and it is evergreen. Should be fine outside in Zone 6b and higher if you get tired of it in the house and I do like it better outside now.

    Bookmark   January 8, 2013 at 9:39PM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

Just one point - if we are talking about Aspidistra - if you have slugs and snails they will chomp happily through an aspidistra. I put mine outside for the summer and it came back in full of holes.

    Bookmark   January 9, 2013 at 1:22PM
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Hi, yes, it is an Aspidistra. Unlike plantsaremylife, this plant has not gone through a regular cycle of growth and die back. Right now, it has remained unchanged for 8 months looking sad and sorry the whole time.

It was repotted 2 years ago, not long after I first started having problems with it. This did not change anything.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 2:40PM
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I have never had one of these, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt, but I wonder if it might need more frequent watering? If the mix is a good drainer andit perked up after the good soaking.....

I have no real knowledge about these plants, but perhaps a more frequent drink could keep the brown at bay?

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 7:03PM
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The Ficus Wrangler

As a commercial interior horticulturist, I have often cared for cast iron plants (Aspidistra), as well as their fellow low-light plant, the snake plant (Sanseveria). No the plants are not related, and the light you describe does not sound really low, but bear with me a moment, you might be able to use something here.

The first thing I noticed about them is that they - more specifically their roots - can be damaged by not aerating sufficiently between waterings, but the damage doesn't show up for weeks or months. Correspondingly, one may make adjustments when problems are noticed, but not see improvements for weeks or months.

The second thing I noticed is that the moisture/aeration level IN THE VERY BOTTOM OF THE POT is what you need to be aware of, not just a couple of inches down. Before watering, use a probe to investigate that moisture, pushing your probe all the way to the bottom. For low light, the probe should feel completely dry; for low moderate light, there should be only the slightest trace of moisture. If the soil has not reached that level, DON'T WATER. Test again in a few days, or even a week, and don't water until that aeration level is reached. When you water, water enough that you get a run off from the drainage hole, 1/4" will be sufficient. Let it sit for a day, and if there's any water still in the saucer, you can dump it out.

I'm making the assumption that you're using some kind of conventional potting soil or soilless mix, not a coarse potting medium like "gritty mix" or 5-1-1. I can't talk with much confidence about those, as I'm just beginning to experiment with them myself.

As to whether you should repot now, trimming off damaged roots, doing general root pruning, and using an improved draining mix, or try to improve the health of the roots (leaching the soil was a good first step) by letting them aerate more first, allowing them to regrow, then repot in maybe a year - that's your choice. Some people will advise the former, some the latter. Doing something drastic to an ailing plant is sometimes not a good idea, however. I would recommend that when you do repot, try a coarse, quick draining mix - I think your Grandma would have been very interested.

    Bookmark   January 10, 2013 at 8:44PM
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Ficuswrangler, That's quite helpful. I haven't watered the plant now for 2 weeks. In winter, it's cold-arid here, summer is warm-arid, so things dry out rather quickly. I never have a problem with rot here. The location tries to mimic forest undergrowth - hidden behind and underneath other foliage, essentially shading it. I think I will repot it, again.

The mix I used drains quite quickly very similar to a cactus type mix, but a little more soil - 1/3 bagged potting soil, 1/3 washed pea gravel, a cup or so of perlite, and the rest is orchid mix. I always drain the tray and never let it stand in the water. There are also 2 inches of gravel on the bottom of the pot. The soil is easy to poke into, and I can easily poke down 5-6 inches and it's barely moist. The good news, I suppose, is that more leaves aren't dying back. But, the really bad news is it's not growing either. I've always learned that a plant that is not growing is not long before it's dead. A plant can't just sit and do nothing, it's against physiology. It must be constantly replacing aging cells!

Here are a couple pictures. It hasn't put up new leaf spikes in many weeks. The longest leaf is 7 inches long, really short considering when it first arrived, the leaves averaged 24-26+ inches and were a solid dark emerald!

PASSWORD: castiron

    Bookmark   January 17, 2013 at 1:18PM
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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)


The gravel at the bottom may be making things worse. Sorry, folks seem to think this helps & some places even used to recommend doing it. We've since learned it actually doesn't help & may make things worse so if & when you repot, pls. remove all that gravel, that may help.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2013 at 3:37PM
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The Ficus Wrangler

Ooooh, that doesn't look good, does it? Those leaves that are half brown, they're done for, you might as well cut them off. Those yellow streaks - you're sure it's not a variegated variety, right? Yes, I know you are, just kidding. Two things they make me think of, iron defficiency, and spider mites. Have you fertilized much? Does your fert have iron in it? If not, you maybe could try just a touch of iron sequestrine, or some such thing.

Do you know what mites would look like? You don't always see webbing, and they're so small, if you don't know what to look for, you might not see them. Try this. Grip a leaf firmly between thumb and first finger, and slide your fingers all the way from one end to the other. Look at your fingers, if you see tiny, very tiny, greenish or reddish smears, you have mites. If you do, you can easily get rid of them by spraying a solution of 1 tablespoon mild lidquid detergent, 1 teaspoon canola oil, in 1 pint of water, then wiping both leaf surfaces with paper towels. Do this once a week for a month.

If this were my plant, I would pull it out of the pot and inspect the roots. Aspidistra have fat, tannish rhizomes with firm,whitish roots hanging down from them and filling the soil. I really suspect you have a bunch of rotted roots. Cut away all the mushy, dried, brown or black stuff, and repot. Your soil mix doesn't sound too bad, though you might want to research the "gritty mix" and "5-1-1" mix talked about on this forum. And ditto on eliminating the "drainage layer." The key to saving this plant may be in allowing it to go very dry between waterings; the place you have it does sound like pretty low light, you should probably be watering something on the order of once a month - always testing the soil, of course.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2013 at 9:27PM
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Could Someone diagnose this Aspidistra?

    Bookmark   September 16, 2013 at 5:11AM
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Well, it died. I followed the recommendations and tried new soil, removed gravel. But shortly after that it went poof. This is weird, considering my other plants are happy and growing like crazy - I have everything from trees (ficus, Norwegian pine, pomegranate) to orchids to hoya to palms to succulents (elephant palm, dragon fruit cactus). The 2 trees the Aspidistra plant was living with both put on a foot of growth this year, the ficus is now 7 feet and while it is claimed Norfolk Pine grows very slowly, I beg to differ, since it has put on 3 feet of growth in 3 years.

Anyway, the mystery of what was going wrong with the Aspidistra was never solved. I don't believe I will get another one, however.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2013 at 1:13PM
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The Ficus Wrangler

Kind of hard to diagnose from one picture and no history or description of problem. However, if you started to see brown/yellow tips on the leaves, and you cut them off, and now you're seeing the yellowing where you cut... the yellowing is a natural reaction to leaf damage - in this case, the scissors cut. If the damage (yellowing and browning) continues on down the leaf, the condition that caused the original damage is still affecting the plant, and needs to be corrected. As for what that condition is, if your plant has lots of leaves, and only 1 or 2 are showing symptoms, it could be nothing more than that these are old leaves the plant is getting rid of. If the problem is appearing on many leaves, the MOST LIKELY cause is too-wet soil. Aspidistra, especially in low light spots, need to have the soil in the bottom of the pot - not just the top couple of inches - get almost dry between waterings.

BTW, cast iron plant, Aspidistra, is not really all that easy to grow. They seem to be quite susceptible to fungal diseases - root rot - and if the soil is damp for very long, the rot gets started, gets into the roots, and is very difficult to overcome.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2013 at 2:14PM
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The Ficus Wrangler

Yea, sometimes that happens. Probably a fungus invaded the tissues of the stems and leaves. At that point, nothing you could have done would have saved it. Sounds like you have lots of plants, so you probably have already noticed that sometimes plants die. One secret of good gardeners is a big garbage can. I bet someday you try another aspidistra.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2013 at 5:40PM
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well, i was sort of generally aware of aspidistras thru flower bouquets :), but did not know much about growing them indoors.
i read thru all the posts and started looking them up - and i think i'm interested now, especially in variegated ones. the ones with lots of white look almost like stromanthe - but should be much easier to grow. it looks like they grow them a lots outdoors in the south/cal.
did anybody try to grow variegated ones indoors? they are difficult to get, though. but supposedly much more common in the south and i already found an online source too.
would they require more light indoors then green?

    Bookmark   September 20, 2013 at 8:04PM
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