Pilea Peperomioides is amongst the most beautiful and sought after indoor plants, and since 2015 I’ve been in dialogue with people around the world who have found it near impossible to get a sample of the plant for themselves. But why has it been so difficult to get a Pilea? Read on below.
Where is Pilea Peperomioides found?
Pilea Peperomioides is native to China and was originally collected by the Scottish botanist George Forrest in 1906 and 1910. The plants were found in the Tangshan range in Western Yunan more than 2000 meters above the ground. The area is renowned for its weather by having spring temperatures the majority of the year, but with mountain peaks covered with snow until April and May.
Can Pilea Peperomioides grow outside?
The first samples of Pilea Peperomioides brought to Edinburgh were traced back to high altitude areas of the Chinese mountain ranges, growing in shady spots on boulders covered with humus. Because of this scientists found it likely that the plant could survive temperatures down to 0 degrees celsius. It has also been proven that Pileas kept in unheated conditions are more likely to produce flowers.
Others report that Pilea Peperomioides grow on limestone boulders in shaded forest areas of southwest China, and is therefore accustomed to dry and relatively low-light habitats.
Although I cannot replicate a high altitude habitat for my own Pileas, I have had samples growing outside in the Scandinavian winter – both in containers and directly in the soil. The growth rate of the plants naturally slows down over winter, but they have proven to be extremely sturdy – perfectly fitting for a mountain plant with the ever-changing weather.
I can also confirm, based on more than 5 years of experience with the plant, that it prefers dry soil over moist, and bright light will make it look healthier than a low light placement.
A plant growing in high altitudes will tolerate a lot of bright light. How much sun does a Pilea need you may ask? Well, too much direct sun can cause damage to the leaves, but I have personally had no problems with sunburn in spring or autumn. Only during the summer months, the direct sun has caused brown and dry spots on my Pileas.
Does Pilea like humidity?
From my own experience and according to the much wiser botanists, Pilea Peperomioides has no special preference for humidity. The plant seems to do perfectly fine in a fairly dry indoor environment, unlike Calatheas, Ferns, and others that rely on misting to keep their beautiful foliage green.
Pilea growing outside of China?
People have reported having seen Pilea Peperomioides in the wild of Costa Rica, but this turned out to be a confusion between Pilea Peperomioides and the very similar green plant called Peperomia Polybotrya. There are other plants that bear similar features as the Pilea and could easily be mistaken with an untrained eye, but realistically you will not find Pilea Peperomioides in the wild.
According to Alexandre Monro, taxonomist, systematist, and field botanist at Kew Gardens, Pilea Peperomioides is rare to find in the wild as China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution resulted in deforestation and changes in land management.
Why is Pileas so difficult to get?
I got my first Pilea Peperomioides in 2015, and at this point, it was difficult to get a hold of in stores in Scandinavia. Once I got my own sample and started posting it on Instagram it became clear how much more rare it was in countries like Australia, the United States, and Canada. I literally had people from all around the world wanting to buy a cutting.
And the word “cutting” is probably the reason why Pileas can be difficult to get a hold of.
Botanists have never found female flowers on Pilea Peperomiodes, and the plant is therefore propagated through asexual reproduction – asexual in this case can meaning a cutting.
With no female flowers on Pileas, they cannot produce seeds, and as we all know seeds are a lot easier to sell and ship around the world than live specimens are.
How did Pilea travel from China to western households?
The story of Pilea Peperomioides is quite fascinating, and proves how well the world is connected – even before air travel was a big a thing as it is today.
So let’s go back to the botanist George Forrest who collected the first samples in the early 1900s. The specimens he collected were stored in Edinburgh, and later on, used by the botanists at Kew to answer the requests they got about the plant of which they knew nothing. It became evident that the plant so mysterious to scientists at all the major botanical gardens was a common indoor plant amongst the public, passed on through cuttings.
The question for the scientists shifted focus from “what is this?” to “how did it get here?” once they learned of the findings in the early 1900s. The clue that would eventually unravel the story of the plant came in 1983 when Kew Gardens received notice from a family from Cornwall, who 20 years prior had had a Norwegian au pair who brought a Pilea Peperomioides from Norway to the UK.
From Scandinavia to the United Kingdom
Scandinavian botanists visiting Kew were asked to make inquiries in their home countries about Pileas, and a Swedish botanist discovered that the plant he had grown since 1976 at home was indeed a Pilea Peperomioides. He searched for more information of the plant in Swedish literature but found none, and eventually ended up arranging for the plant to be presented to the public on tv. The tv appearance resulted in a storm of 10.000 letters from people owning a specimen of the plant.
One of the responses created the link to the Norwegian missionary Agnar Espegren who brought home a Pilea Peperomioides plant in 1946, and since then passed cuttings of to friends he met on his extensive travels through Norway.
A modern day plant mystery at its best.