In preparation for the coming church year, I’ve been looking at some older books on class in America. (You have to look for older writings because, with a few notable exceptions, we seem to have stopped thinking about class in America.) While reading from Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System I came across his reference to a common houseplant I’ve seen my whole life — the Aspidistra. It looks like this in the ground:
I’m certain that I never spent a day in my house growing up without the company of this plant. But what I didn’t know was its extraordinary history as part of peoples’ households and its association with class and status in Europe and America. Honestly, I’m blown away by the history.
Turns out, the main benefit of this plant is that it is tolerant of EVERYTHING. It doesn’t mind neglect, poor conditions, and most of all, it can survive and even help purify the air in houses that have dirty of polluted air. (Think of houses still relying on coal heating at the turn of the century.) So, in other words, this plant is useful, makes it seem like you are a thoughtful carer of your living space, and it is okay with being ignored most of the time. As long as you water it reasonably frequently and remove the occasional dead leaf, Aspidistra is fine.
This is where it gets weird though. Because what should that (or any plant for that matter!) have to do with social class?! But it appears that the very things I’ve just mentioned are precisely what made this plant popular among the aspiring middle classes. If you think back to an age before television or radio, tending to flowers in a conservatory in one’s home was a defining part of being upper class. So if you didn’t have a conservatory, but wanted to seem like an agile, class-mobile middle class person, the aspidistra worked like a charm. And it became so common a sight in middle class houses, that it became a kind of cliche symbol for a certain kind of middle class person. According to its wikipedia entry, this association was cemented in the late 19th and early 20th century when the plant featured in Sherlock Holmes and a story by George Orwell.
This brings me back, inevitably, to class. Because I am certain that we live in a world defined by social class, though I think we’ve gotten very bad at recognizing how that functions among us. But I’m sure that it doesn’t exist at the level of houseplants, except insofar as having any kind of houseplant whatsoever kind of implies that a person is put together, at least to one level. So this means that the symbolism of the aspidistra is up for grabs!
So I went back to the plant’s description in various online venues emphasizing its assessment from botanists and other scientists. And the description of this plant is, honestly, exemplary. I wish I could live up to this plants virtues. Aspidistra are tolerant of rough conditions, having been referred to as the “cast iron plant.” It doesn’t need a great deal of sun and can thrive even under much shade. It is okay in sub-freezing temperatures, but also okay if things get up to 100 degrees F. It does not attract nor is it easily damaged by insects and other pests.
So, perhaps we should newly embrace this plant as an exemplum for the rest of us. I wish I could cope with extremes in temperature, both literally and figuratively. And have we ever lived at a time when it was more important to be able to thrive under shade?
This is a plant we should be living up to. If you need me, I’ll be at the garden center!