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The Curious Case of the Pilea

  • 3 min read

During the 1960s and 70s, a curious plant regularly found its way to the identification desks at Kew Gardens. It had large disc shaped leaves; and had been shared widely as cuttings amongst friends.

Mature pilea peperomioides plant

The plant had various common names, the UFO plant (thanks to the shape of the leaves), friendship plant (due to the ease of its propagation making it perfect for sharing), one quirky owner even called it a triffid.

The botanists at Kew would look at it, puzzled, and either refuse to identify it due to the lack of flowers, or make non-committal suggestions that it might be a Peperomia. It gained a few other names in this time, primarily the Chinese Money Plant, which is the main common name used in the UK now.

The confusion was further confounded when a flowered specimen was presented at Kew, and the small flowers suggested the plant to be of the Urticaceae family (similar to common nettles), a wholly different variety to the Peperomia it had previously been compared to.

Cang mountains. Image from Yunnan Visitor Centre

Pilea Peperomioides was first discovered in the Cang Mountains, near Yunnan province in China by George Forrest in 1906.

The Cang mountains are now a popular tourist attraction, with paved walkways allowing visitors to traverse the steep cliff faces safely. In Forrest’s time however they were a treacherous landscape of sharp drops punctuated with beautiful plants. Many of which couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world.

George Forrest. Image from Wikipedia

The events surrounding his many adventures during the Tibetan Rebellion in 1905 led Forrest to be known as the “Scottish Indiana Jones of the plant world”.

Forrest discovered huge numbers of plants in this area, sending many of them home to Edinburgh’s botanic gardens to be formally logged and identified. In total he is thought to have brought back 1200 new species. The Pilea was sent, logged, named Pilea Peperomioides, and forgotten about.

So, if the specimen at Edinburgh has been simply logged and stored, how had the plant made it into the hands of so many people?

In 1983 Robert Pearson, a columnist and author for RHS and other gardening publications, posted an illustrated article in the Sunday Telegraph asking anyone with information about this plant to contact Kew Gardens. One of the responses came from Miss Jill Sidebottom in Cornwall, who had brought it home aged 9 from a trip to Norway, leading to the following discovery: This elusive plant had been discovered again at a Chinese market in Hunan province by Norwegian missionary Agnar Espegren in 1945.

Agnar Espegren. Image from Dagen Magazine

Espegren brought a cutting home with him, via Calcutta, in a sealed box. The journey took a year and yet by some miracle the cutting was still alive. After nurturing the plant, Espegren began to give away basal shoots of the plant to friends in Norway, with one eventually finding its way to England via a 9-year-old girl with a Norwegian au pair named Modil Wigg in 1964. Pilea Peperomioides is still known primarily as the Missionary Plant in Norway and Sweden. 

This plant was eventually compared to the one found by Forrest, and the official identification was finally complete.

These days Pilea Peperomioides remains a popular house plant around the world, both in China where it was initially discovered and beyond. Most owners probably aren’t aware of its dramatic history, and that despite its commonality in peoples’ homes, it wasn’t officially named and formally identified until Robert Pearson took things into his own hands in 1984.

Despite it being possibly endangered in the wild it’s ease in propagating makes it a great plant to share with friends, no matter what they might call it.