"I never said, 'I want to be alone.'
I only said, 'I want to be let alone.'
There is all the difference."
-Greta Garbo, about her famous but misremembered
line in the movie Grand Hotel
I bought one of these a couple summers ago (July '05), and it did fine for me for a solid year and a half, and then one day last winter I noticed it had spider mites. There ensued a long spell of swishing the leaves through sinkfuls of soapy water, and hand-wiping leaves with wet paper towels, and dry paper towels, and spraying the plant in the kitchen sink, and all kinds of other stuff. Then, for some reason I no longer remember, I bought a second, smaller plant, which also promptly got mites, and then I decided that the way to fix it all was to pot the two plants together. I don't remember the actual thought processes involved.
Inevitably, the whole thing failed, and I had to pitch the plants out and start over later with a new one, which is so far going well, cross your fingers. But it should have become obvious to you some time ago (from the quote, if nothing else) that the problem was, the plant wanted to be let alone.
Which is not to say that I shouldn't have done something about the spider mites. But I was definitely getting the plant too wet – every time I sprayed it with water, every time I did the soapy-water thing in the sink, I was also watering it, even when I wasn't trying to. During the winter, Aspidistra goes more or less dormant, and isn't really interested in water. This isn't absolute – you still have to water it once or twice, maybe – but ideally, you should just leave it someplace cool that gets a little bit of light and let it wait out the winter without too much fuss. I didn't know this (or if I knew it, it wasn't on my mind much) at the time this all went down.
What I should have done, probably, is give it a quick cursory wipedown with some damp paper towels and then spray it with one of the many oil-based mite products out there. We have one at work (Mite-X) that is primarily cottonseed oil, I think, with some clove and garlic oil mixed in,1 which I'm not overly impressed with when it comes to getting rid of mites on our plants at work, but that's maybe not an entirely fair test, since we never do all the plants at once, so there's no way to be sure that the oil hasn't worked beautifully, right before the plants are re-infested by whatever plants we set them next to. So I'm willing to give Mite-X the benefit of the doubt there. We also have a few preparations that include neem oil, though they're pricey, and list "clarified hydrophobic extract of neem oil" on the ingredients, as opposed to cold-pressed neem, which I've been told (at Garden Web) is vastly superior, because only cold-pressing preserves the active ingredients of neem in suitable quantity, or something like that. Unless I've misunderstood something along the way, which happens. In the last week or two, I've bought some of the clarified hydrophobic . . ., etc., and used it on some Dizygotheca elegantissima that I suspected of having mite issues, and while it's too soon to have a report on the effectiveness, I can tell you right now that the smell makes me kind of want to wretch. Not everybody has that problem with it, but for myself, I'm thinking summertime, well-ventilated outdoor use only.
You may be thinking, well what about actual poisons, though? Something synthetic and super-toxic to living things? You ain't-a-one of them organic fellers, are ye?2
I don’t mind a good synthetic chemical every once in a while, no. I mean, I have a chemistry degree, for chrissakes, so it's not like I'm afraid of chemicals. I actually rather like and approve of chemicals. But, you know, if these are mites I've brought home with me from work, as they probably are, then they've been getting sprayed every week, or every other week, with some form of noxious chemical which is probably formulated specifically for mites, and yet we still always have them. Some of this is because we bring new stuff in all the time, and there's no way to be 100% certain that it's 100% pest-free, but the more reasonable guess is that we probably just never get all of them in the first place, and we're building a race of resistant supermites which will eventually take over and enslave us all.3 So I'm not actually impressed with the effectiveness of hard-core industrial poisons. And anyway for a small infestation, like on a single plant, physical removal is plausible, so full-scale warfare isn't necessarily even a good idea. I mean, for mealybugs or whiteflies I'll go get the flamethrower out of the attic,4 but for mites? On one plant? Nah.
I don't know that the oil thing would have worked, for sure, but it would have been better to try that. If nothing else, I might have been able to get the plant through the winter and into a more active season, and once it was growing again I could maybe have used a combination of water and oil and soap.
In any case. They're not fast growers in general, though in my experience they do add leaves at a good rate during summer and fall. Sort of like Sansevieria trifasciata – they aren't often motivated to do a whole lot, but when they decide to wake up, they can add a pretty good amount of foliage in a pretty short period. The slow growth overall means that plants are often expensive for their size.
UPDATE (1/30/10): Raised the difficulty level from 1.1 to 4.8, a pretty dramatic adjustment, because the replacement plant also just fell apart on me, over nothing, and I had been leaving it alone, so I give up. I don't know what it wanted, and I officially don't care anymore. Cast-iron plant my ass.
Aspidistra -- me.
Greta Garbo -- public domain via Wikipedia
1 Why clove and garlic? I suspect it's so that the product has a funky smell, which will make consumers believe that it's doing something. Though sometimes I am too cynical for my own good, and I suppose they could both be expected to repel some kinds of bugs.
2 My apologies. I lapsed into cowboy/pirate-speak there for a second.
3 I, for one, welcome our new arthropod overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted blogging personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground English ivy farms. (slightly modified quote from "The Simpsons")
4 "We had to destroy the plant in order to save it."