May 31, 2023


In Madrid’s Calle de Fuencarral, at the height of the Bilbao roundabout, in the almost perpetual semi-darkness of a doorway on the odd-numbered sidewalk, live two aspidistras who have been in the building for longer than the oldest of the neighbors. The caretaker who takes care of him is called Manolo Cabezuelo. “They don’t demand any specific attention,” he says. “Normal soil, water when the substrate is dry, and occasionally a little compost for green leafy plants. And clean the leaves, yes, to remove the particles of contamination and dust ”, he adds. “The owner of the building has known these aspidistras all her life. She cares a lot about them, because they are well cared for, ”he also explains about the specimens that decorate the portal arranged in two stone pot covers with carved motifs from the plant itself.

The Aspidistra elatior, Commonly called pilistra or donkey ears, it is a plant native to China and Japan, where it grows wild in the shady areas of jungles and forests. Slow-growing, it spreads by means of rhizomes that sprout large, dark green, lance-shaped leaves from the ground. There are also variegated varieties (with stripes of white and cream) and speckled (called milky way or Milky Way).

The two aspidistras that Manolo Cabezuelo takes care of in a doorway on Calle Fuencarral, in Madrid.
The two aspidistras that Manolo Cabezuelo takes care of in a doorway on Calle Fuencarral, in Madrid.Carol Lopez

The aspidistra is the Methuselah of indoor plants. Long-lived and super resistant —in English it is colloquially called cast iron plant (cast iron plant)—, it is not demanding in terms of temperature, watering, light or environmental humidity. It could be said that it is one of the most resilient plants, a survivor in practically all types of latitudes and the perfect choice for those who are new to the care of indoor plants or in the homes of people who are absent for long periods. Patios, porches, stairwells, portals, landings, lobbies, building cloisters and, in general, any place away from direct sunlight and heating are the most suitable locations. The sun’s rays burn its leaves, filling them with brown spots and deteriorating the tips and outline. Hence another of its popular nicknames: leaves of hall or living room, due to this plant’s fondness for interior spaces and its carefree tolerance of darkness.

Several aspidistras outside and under cover at the entrance of a north-facing portal of a block of flats in the Arapiles neighborhood of Madrid.
Several aspidistras outside and under cover at the entrance of a north-facing portal of a block of flats in the Arapiles neighborhood of Madrid.Carol Lopez

Our grandmothers have a master’s degree and they didn’t know it. María Victoria Blanco was born in Trujillo (Cáceres) and has lived in the Arapiles neighborhood of Madrid for more than 60 years. In the portal of her building, a flowerbed of aspidistras has been exultant for decades when neighbors come and go. “The pilistra is a very tough plant, even more so than pothos, which is saying,” she says. “In my town, in many houses they had them in the hallway, one on each side of the door. There was almost no need to attend to them, they didn’t care about winter or summer. Sometimes some time would go by without watering them, and they didn’t need to have a lot of light either. I remember that we cleaned the leaves with cotton soaked in oil and they were shiny and beautiful, ”says Blanco. To multiply it, it is enough to divide the root ball —a mass of earth that is left attached to the roots of the plants to transplant them— when new shoots are coming out.

The cleanliness and shine of its leather-touch leaves is a key issue in the health and beauty of the aspidistra. “I clean them with beer. I buy a private label, I put it in a flus-flus and every 15 days I spray the leaves and then polish them with a soft cotton cloth,” says Juani, a caretaker of a block of flats in the Chamberí neighborhood. The barley contained in beer is a source of minerals such as magnesium, essential for plants to produce the chlorophyll that gives the leaves their green color. It also contains potassium and phosphorus, which strengthen the vital structures of the plant and keep it vigorous.

Portrait of a Victorian-era family from Hellidon, Northamptonshire, United Kingdom, posing at the door of their house next to a table with a tablecloth and an aspidistra.
Portrait of a Victorian-era family from Hellidon, Northamptonshire, United Kingdom, posing at the door of their house next to a table with a tablecloth and an aspidistra. English Heritage (Getty)

Ease of care aside, another reason pilistra is so popular is for the gorgeous texture, dynamism, and packing of its showy foliage. Very much in the taste of the Victorian era, it caused a sensation in the United Kingdom during the 19th century as an ornament for well-to-do homes. Today, this leafy plant of decadent, jungle beauty is the perfect choice for those in love with sterlitzia or bird of paradise —that tropical one that is so fashionable in interior botanical decoration—, but that does not have enough light in your living room for its cultivation.

It is curious to observe how the longevity of this plant generates almost family relationships around it. Instagram serves as an example (#aspidistra) to meet people who pose with their pilistras, take selfies with them, hug them and take pictures of themselves treating them with such care that it would almost be said that the plant has an animated entity. Like that of that being of company that is present for years in good times and in bad times. And it is that, although its growth is slow —with an average production of five or six new leaves each year—, a well-acclimatized aspidistra can easily live for more than a century. Grandmothers, mothers, grandchildren… and always the same pilistra. A not whimsical relative who survives from generation to generation. Like that jewel that is inherited carrying sentimental memories and shared memory.



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