The Real Story Behind Pilea Peperomioides
Updated: Sep 3, 2019
Part of the charm of our Pass It On Plant is the story of its unusual and mysterious journey from its home in Yunnan, China to Europe and beyond, as a result of cuttings passed on from one person to another.
A Journey From China To Europe
Pilea Peperomioides was first collected by George Forrest in 1906 and 1910, in the Cang Mountain range in Yunnan Province, Southern China.
In 1945 the species was rediscovered by Norwegian missionary Agnar Espegren, who was living with his family in Hunan province. He then flew to Kunming, in Yunnan, where he stayed for a week.
Here Espegren obtained a live sample of the plant (probably from a local market), packed it in a box and brought it, together with his family, to Calcutta, where they stayed for about a year. The Espegren family arrived back in Norway only in March 1946, with the plant surprisingly still alive.
Espegren started travelling around Norway and giving sprouts of the plant to friends.
In this way, the plant became to spread around Norway and then Sweden, England and beyond.
This entire story was, until recently, unknown to the botanists.
A Popular But Mysterious Plant
Pilea became common during the 60’s and 70’s, especially around London (it was available at the Kew Gardens and RHS Garden of Wisley) and in Edinburgh (where Forrest's collections were still conserved). It kept propagating amongst amateur gardeners via cuttings, but scientists still didn't have a clear understanding of the plant.
Progress on its identification was first made in 1978 when Mrs D. Walport of Northolt sent some leaves and an inflorescence of male flowers for identification to Kew. The leaves resembled certain species of Peperomia in the Piperaceae, while the male flowers pointed to the Urticaceae family. Ultimately, attentive research by the Kew botanist Wessel Marais revealed that the plant was a Chinese species of Pilea, named in 1912 by the German botanist Friedrich Diels as "Pilea Peperomioides".
Over the following years, new samples from different parts of UK were sent in for identification to Edinburgh. It became evident that many people were growing this curious species as a houseplant, passing it on to friends as cuttings and selling them in markets.
Discovering The Roots
In an attempt to clarify how and when did the plant get from the mountains of Yunnan to Europe, Robert Pearson published an article in the Sunday Telegraph on January 1983, asking to inform the Kew Gardens if anyone had any information on the introduction of the plant to Britain. Amongst the replies received, one led to the answer.
A family, the Sidebottoms from Cornwall, told about a plant they received 20 years previously. The young daughter of their Norwegian au pair went to Norway for a holiday with her family, who gave the girl a small specimen of the plant to bring back to England. Here's how Pilea arrived from Scandinavia to the UK.
At that point, several botanists from Scandinavia visited the Kew Herbarium and examined specimens of Pilea Peperomioides, but still, none of them had ever seen it before.
The problem came to the attention of Dr Lars Kers of the Botanic Garden in Stockholm, who then recognized that the unknown plant he was growing at his place, received from a relative in Sweden in 1976, was indeed Pilea Peperomioides.
Dr Lars Kers consequently arranged a presentation of the plant on a popular Swedish TV show; more than 10,000 letters were received after the programme, proving that Pilea Peperomioides was a very popular houseplant in Sweden. Amongst this impressive response, eventually, the link to the Agnar Espegren story came to light.
Pilea's true identity was finally established in 1984 when the first known published image appeared in the Kew Magazine.
Source: "A Chinese Puzzle Solved" - Dr Phillip Cribb, Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey.