Collecting Aspidistra

The past week has been all about collections: Magnolia, Ophiopogon, Aspidistra and Geum. I consider myself a plant-a-holic (until someone silly trademarks that term), and have been collecting plants since I was a child. My first collections were of Sempervivum and cacti. It’s funny that my nephew also has this fascination with prickly succulents: I’m glad to see some of my plant collecting genes in him.

In 2014 I was awarded National Collection status for my collection of Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra. This collection started off from buying one plant in a nursery in Kent. It was the first time I had found a cultivar of Hakonechloa that wasn’t ‘Aureola’, so I had to have it. When I kept finding more, I decided to look into the requirements for having a National Collection. I still have this collection, and I love the grass more than any other ornamental grass. I was lucky enough to be able to show my collection at Hampton Court twice. Last year however I did decide not to display them again. The 10 days you are there are pretty full on, and I wasn’t enjoying it like I should. Another reason for not displaying them again is that it is quite a small collection of about 20 different cultivars. This means that every year you bring the same plants, which makes it boring for yourself, but also for the public.

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Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’

When I started my new job in 2015, I came into contact with a very unusual plant. It was a variegated Aspidistra elatior. A lot of people will have seen the green version, and often people have had one in their family for three or more generations. The Victorians used to love the cast iron plant as it was one of only a couple of plants that could cope with the dark Victorian houses, and the fumes that came from the Victorian heating. It became a symbol of middle class stature, and that is why you often see photographs of Victorians posing next to an Aspidistra with its namesake table.

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This variegated plant that I found at work had been in a coldframe for several years. It had survived frost, neglect and scorching sun. I took a cutting from this plant, and took it home. About a year later I visited a friend from Plant Heritage. Tricia had been collections coordinator for Kent for many years, and I had recently taken over from her. In her greenhouse was another Aspidistra which was even more unusual than the variegated one: this one had spots. I was told the story of how this plant had come into her possession, and it turned out to have great provenance, though the exact name was unknown. The original plant had come from a well known Japanese plantsman, Dr Shuichi Hirao, and was given to another well known (British) plantsman: Sir Peter Smithers in the 1980s. Sir Peter Smithers offered a piece of the plant if Tricia could get it to the UK. The sister of a Dutch friend picked it up and brought it to England. Sir Peter said that Dr Hirao had sent it as he had an extremely sharp eye for a good plant, and thought very highly of this.
Tricia had a spare plant in her greenhouse, and gave this to me.

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Unidentified Aspidistra from Sir Peter Smithers

After I got this spotted plant I got hooked on collecting Aspidistra. I found several at a French nursery, Crug Farm Plants had a good selection, and I was lucky that my friend Justin went to the Cotswolds twice last year, and offered to pick some up from Cotswold Garden Flowers. I also discovered that a German plant collector I had met through the Hakonechloa, also collected Aspidistra, so we did a few swaps. The entire history of Aspidistra fascinates me, and with my plant collection now comes a collection of Aspidistra tables, Aspidistra postcards, and friends (and my cat) having to pose ‘Victorian stylee’ when they visit me.

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In March this year I sent a collection proposal to Plant Heritage. You need to do this first before you can send an application for a National Collection. I wanted to get this in because I felt it was difficult to find a scope for my collection. The RHS Plant Finder is a guideline for collections, and there was quite a large amount of Aspidistra in there. For me a collection needs to be manageable, and there needs to be room for expansion. I got the advice back from the committee, and this said that I could just do species, and later the cultivars. The difficulty here is that sometimes nurseries have a plant one year, but then move on to newer and different cultivars. Of course as a collection holder you are preserving the plants for the future to see they don’t get lost altogether, but many listed in the plant finder had not been for sale for quite some time.
After I realised the huge difference between the online Plant Finder, and the paper form, I saw that the species elatior had a decent amount of cultivars, with a diversity of forms. There are white and yellow striped, spotted, ones with white tips at the leaves, and even ones with stripes and spots. Also A. elatior had been one of the plants the Victorians had. Records show that the original plants were called A. lurida, but A. elatior was introduced into this country in the 1830s, from Japan, via The Netherlands. It is unclear if lurida was misnamed and may have been elatior. Throughout the 19th century the names were often mixed up, and it still happens now. The only way to tell is to look at the flower as the stigma are different colours, as well as the flower being a different shape.

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A.elatior flower

When I checked the cultivar list of A. elatior in the Plant Finder, I noticed that I did already have all of those, and a few more cultivars which were not in the Plant Finder. The plants I had were large enough to take cuttings for backups of, and after writing clear labels, including accession numbers, I sent off my application for a National Plant Collection of Aspidistra elatior. At the moment I am focusing my collecting efforts on this species, but in future I do hope to add different species to my official collection. For now all my other plants are ‘out of scope’.

I am hoping to hear if my application was approved by the end of June, but if it is, there may be an Aspidistra or two heading to Hampton Court in a few years. Wish me luck!

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The very variable A. elatior ‘Variegata’
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