Friday, 6 April 2018

Aspidistra

Image: scott.zona
Aspidistras are famous for their ability to withstand and even flourish under the kind of neglect that would usually end in the crinkly, brown-leafed death of most plants.

But that's no excuse for neglecting their absolutely amazing flowers!

Image: fuzzyjay
Aspidistras have been suffering multiple levels of neglect for centuries. The first member of the genus Aspidistra was named and described in 1822. After that, people seemed to lose interest for some 150 years. That's why people thought there were only about ten species.

It wasn't until the 1970s and 80s when scientists finally pulled their fingers out, pulled their socks up and finally started really looking for more Aspidistras. Now more than 100 species are known, most of them in southern China, though others live in India, Japan and various countries in between.


Even as scientists and explorers were neglecting Aspidistras in their native habitat, the general public was importing them so they could neglect them at home.

The so-called Cast-iron Plant (A. elatior) was a particularly popular houseplant in Victorian England, where its luxuriously glossy green leaves and manageable 60 cm (2 foot) height added a bit of exotic colour to gloomy homes. And, despite their tropical foliage, they could actually do pretty well there, too.

Image: Bahamut Chao
A. attenuata
In the wild, Aspidistras grow as thick foliage on the forest floor. Tree branches overshadow them, taking all the light, tree roots undermine them, taking all the water, so Aspidistras must be tough as gauchos to survive on what meagre resources are left for them.

All of which meant Aspidistras could survive in gloomy, chilly, Victorian houses. It turned out they could even shake off the ill effects of noxious oil lamp fumes that could leave lesser plants yellowed and withered.

Image: justinleif
Cast-iron Plant (A. elatior) flowers
And yet, all this time, people have continued to neglect the flowers!

I suppose it's not that surprising. While Aspidistras blossom every year, their flowers are small and bloom half-buried in the soil. These are no daffodils or bluebells where it looks like the only reason for the green bits is to get that flower up and reaching for the sky. Aspidistra flowers are overshadowed by their own verdant leaves, even smothered and covered by the leaf litter. You have to get on your hands and knees to get a good look at them and, in the wild, even brush aside several handfuls of dead leaves...

Image: scott.zona
Usually.

A. grandiflora is aptly named. It comes from Vietnam and got its name as recently as 2007! Can you believe that we've all been missing out on this thing all that time? It has tentacles for goodness sake! That's what neglect gets you, almost two centuries of unknown tentacles. Tragedy.

Image: scott.zona
It may not be The Biggest Aspidistra in the World but it's probably the biggest flower. If you stepped on it, I don't know if you'd get your foot back!

You know how a broken clock is right twice a day? Well, A. grandiflora is like a clock with twelve hands, so it's right every hour of the day. Each one of those tentacles or clock hands or lobes is some 5 to 6 cm (2-2.4 in) long. It also puts me in mind of some of the best abominations among the Stinkhorn Mushrooms. Which, it turns out, is the right train of thought.

Image: Bahamut Chao
For a long time, it was assumed Aspidistras were pollinated by terrestrial amphipods or slugs. Slugs! No one thought that was normal, in fact, they thought Aspidistras probably had the weirdest pollination strategy of any flowering plant, but there you are. Someone saw slugs creeping over their Aspidistra blooms in the garden and assumed he was watching pollination in action.

But then scientists pulled their fingers out and pulled their socks up and travelled to Japan, the native home of the Cast-iron Plant, A. elatior itself. They watched Cast-iron Plants in their own habitat for two years, logging all the visitors and taking note of the results.

Image: yamatsu
Cast-iron Plant (A. elatior) flowers
It turned out that slugs and amphipods were almost entirely absent for those two years. The most frequent visitors were fungus gnats. These tiny flies are always on the lookout for damp soil and mould in which to lay their eggs. Some species are serious pests of wheat, their maggots scouring holes in the stem to feed on leaking sap, though most feed on fungus and rotting plant material. And yes, some of them are pollinators.

Fungus gnats are poor, slow fliers who spend a lot of time on their feet, scurrying over the soil. Aspidistra flowers are perfectly placed to attract them. And if you think those flowers look like mushrooms, you're completely right! Even fungus gnats think so, and surely they're the experts?

Image: mutolisp
It appears fungus gnats are fooled into thinking they've found a good place to lay their eggs, somewhere close to a nice mushroom their larvae could feed on. But the joke's on them! As they climb into the flowers, they're showered with pollen and don't even get a drop of nectar for their troubles. These aren't daffodils and bluebells who rely on trades and barters, Aspidistras use pure deception and exploitation to get their way.

Good grief! It took us almost two centuries to figure this stuff out and it's not even clear that it holds true for all the other species. Who knows what crazy things could be going on out there? It's nice to Keep the Aspidistra Flying but sometimes you have to part the foliage, look down and take stock of what's going on beyond those glossy leaves.

5 comments:

Porakiya Draekojin said...

the flowers with tentacles look like anemones

Porakiya Draekojin said...

second post in a row...wooo...(edited. not sure how I typed fairy in place of hairy XD)

the next critter you should research is the ribbed newt. it's in the same class as the hairy frog on the freaky scale!!!! (you can thank youtube for revealing the critter to me)

Joseph Jameson-Gould said...

You're right, it does look like a sea anemone. I feel like it really should eat mice or something!

That newt sounds good, I'll check them out. Thanks!

John Meszaros said...

I love weird, ugly-cute flowers like these. The inconspicuous, low-growing flowers make complete sense ecologically for a plant that lives in the bare-bones margins of the forest.

John Meszaros said...

I’ll have to get an Apidistra for my houseplant garden. I certainly have plenty of fungus gnats to pollinate it’s flowers.

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