Genus spotlight: Pilea

The genus Pilea is a popular plant today with a variety of compelling cultivars available. I want to reject the trope that a genus or species of plant can be boring or ugly. There are a diversity of Pilea available for gardeners interested in tropical plants, and several are suitable for beginners. The different leaf shapes, colors, and habits have the potential to spice up plant arrangements. The ease of propagation of Pilea makes them perfect to share with friends or family, and are safe, non-toxic for households with curious children or pets.

Last spring, I became obsessed with a plant I saw online: Pilea involucrata (mollis) “Moon Valley”. I had never owned a Pilea before, and I was fascinated by the dark brown color on the leaves and the texture, hard to describe in words but papery thin, sharply serrate, and corrugated. Soon after that, I decided to order it, and since then I’ve brought home several other varieties.

Around that time, I published an article about the genus without any experience taking care of them. Even a short time with them (at most 8 months, most recently a few weeks ago) has showed me that Pilea might deserve the reputation of being somewhat challenging, but definitely make up for it with vigorous growth and beautiful foliage given the right care.

General care across Pilea varieties

Pilea are herbaceous plants that can be found in tropical and temperate regions across the world. They are non-toxic in the nettle family, and generally have opposite leaf arrangement. They do not grow very large, some staying quite diminutive which makes them a good choice for terrariums or dish gardening. Pilea are generally suited for shady conditions making them reliable houseplants. Generally, they can handle small periods of dry soil, but missing a critical period of water-stress can seriously harm the plant. Careful not to water too often, because of the risk of root rot. I find my Pilea planted in terracotta dry out too fast; a plastic or ceramic pot may be best for your Pilea. Propagate by pups which grow from the base of the plant, or by stem cuttings. Roots usually grow from a node, the place on the stem where leaves (or one leaf) grew from.

Pilea peperomioides

Pilea peperomioides – friendship plant, UFO plant, Chinese money plant. Don’t mind the damaged leaf on mine!

An iconic, hugely popular species in recent years. Native to China, this plant has unmistakable round leaves. This species, like other Pilea, produces offshoots at the base of the plant: genetic clones of the main plant which can be left alone, or propagated to share with a friend. Named for its likeness to another plant genus, Peperomia. This plant used to be highly sought after, but has become very accessible due to its affinity for propagation and efforts by growers. A very new plant to me, but I’m thrilled to grow it because it has a lot of character. Surprisingly succulent, with a thick cuticle, I feel like P. peperomioides can handle drying out a little more than its thin-leaved relatives. These are easy to find practically anywhere that sells plants; I got mine from Hirt’s.

Pilea cadierei (variegata)

The aluminum plant is another classic Pilea, native to China and Vietnam. The variegated form is less common but I got mine from Steve’s Leaves. This and other thin-leaved Pilea begin to droop when thirsty; if you miss the beginning wilt, the plant will totally flop over. If you’re interested in a plant that will communicate its needs, Pilea cadierei is a really perfect option. The silver coloration on the leaves is really remarkable, and I feel like it’s on the level of Scindapsus pictus or a Hoya pubicalyx in terms of shimmery foliage. I notice that the variegation on this plant gets kind of brown over time, as is the case with other variegated plants. Providing ideal conditions (bright light, consistent nutrients and water) are most likely to preserve variegation. This is a plant I would recommend without a doubt to someone just getting started with plants.

Pilea cadierei minima “Patti’s Gold”

Pilea cadierei minima “Patti’s Gold” – miniature aluminum plant. Not as compact as some P cadierei minima on the market, but with a subtle yellow tint to the leaves.

This is a variety related to the regular aluminum plant, with smaller leaves and a more compact habit. This cultivar is from Glasshouse Works and I think it’s quite remarkable. Like the regular form of P. cadierei, this plant will wilt dramatically when it’s thirsty. One of my favorite plants, I think!

Pilea pubescens “Silver Cloud”

This variety is a cultivar with parentage that I’m really not sure about. The leaves are totally silver, with no trace of green. This Pilea and many of the other varieties in this post are more sensitive to underwatering, and will droop and lose leaves if left too long without water. Its growth habit is bushy, like other varieties, though I think it does better with regular pinching of the end of the shoots to promote branching, and a less leggy appearance. Very good plant for terrariums because it stays fairly small. Bought mine from Steve’s Leaves.

Pilea involucrata [mollis] “Moon Valley”

I have a small “Moon Valley” cutting from Josh’s Frogs, which didn’t do the best in my care, and a larger pot from Hirt’s. I want to pot them together though I’m worried that the plant from Hirt’s won’t have the dark coloration of the other one. Looking closely at the plant on the left, you can see a white inflorescence, which I usually pinch off to promote leaf growth, but not to much success. In the past, I’ve seen the inflorescence develop a pinkish color. To be totally honest, I am unsure whether these plants are the same variety, but I hope to know in time as they grow. In the spring I will probably cut the bigger plant back a bit to promote some growth at the base. I find this plant doesn’t really wilt as much when it gets thirsty, though I think with a trained eye you might be able to tell. Does it live up to my expectations? For what it’s worth, I think I struggled to get the watering right with this plant at first which probably impacted its growth for me. In terms of looks and texture, I think the Moon Valley variety is awesome. If you’re looking for a plant that’s similar to this but with a little more green, I’d suggest the similar Pilea grandifolia, which has brighter green leaves and a more subtle leaf texture.

Pilea “Dark Mystery”

This Pilea is another one that has been slightly difficult to learn the care. It has been relatively slower growing than other Pilea, and will very dramatically wilt when it needs water. I have been a little late to water this plant for a few weeks now which I think has been causing it stress. I’m even a little worried I see spidermites on the leaves, but that’s the reality for indoor gardening especially during the winter. The flowers are kind of weird, and I’ve never seen it quit producing blooms in the months I’ve had it in my care. I think it’s a really stunning plant. I think it might be related to Pilea dentata or semidentata. I bought this plant with my P. “Silver Cloud” from Steve’s Leaves last spring.

Pilea spruceana “Norfolk”

Pilea spruceana “Norfolk” – dark gray leaves with parallel silver bands going down the leaf. Leaves rounder than other varieties. Distinct leaf texture, looks almost like it was made out of yarn. Pink backsides to leaf. Very fuzzy leaves and stems!

This variety is a bit of a sad story for me, and a reminder that watering Pileas can be a challenge. I noticed my plant was beginning to droop not long after I watered it, which indicated to me that there was some kind of stress acting on the plant. Because it was droopy while the soil was still damp, I felt really anxious that I had a root rot situation on my hands. So, I took some cuttings as insurance in case my original plant doesn’t make it. I’ve struggled to get the care for this plant right, but I do know that it (like other Pilea) propagate rather well from stem cuttings. If you’re looking to fill out your Pilea plant or share a piece with your friend, rooting in water (or by sticking the stem straight into the soil) is relatively fast and easy.

Pilea glauca “Silver Sprinkles”

Pilea glauca “Silver Sprinkles” – thin reddish stems with cold, blue-gray foliage.

This Pilea (and P. depressa) have miniature foliage in comparison to the other plants mentioned before. I’ve thrown tiny cuttings of this plant into terrariums with a great deal of success, the only issue being that it needs to be cut back every once in a while. Very undemanding care in this tiny jar, I just water it when it seems to be pretty dry.

Pilea depressa

Pilea depressa -bright green leaves and stems, very succulent with a thicker cuticle than most Pilea. Much smaller than the other varieties.

This plant was given to me as a couple of stems to put in my terrariums, a couple of which I rooted in a jar and let grow wild! The leaves are very thick and start to shrivel when it needs water, like most succulents. Its small habit makes it a good choice for a terrarium, or grown out in a big pot I believe they start to trail. I barely water this one, and it grows happily for me. Also comes in a variegated form.

More Pilea Varieties

There are a great deal of other Pilea that are worth mentioning:

  • P. cadierei minima – current cultivar is much more compact than the minima in my care, “Patti’s Gold” from Glasshouse Works
  • P. nummulariifolia
  • P. “Silver Tree” – Looks like P. “Silver Cloud” but larger, with darker gray leaves and coppery new growth
  • P. “Moonlight” – from Glasshouse Works
  • Variegated P. peperomioides?
  • P. “Espresso” – Looks like P depressa but a little chocolatey
  • P. microphylla aka “artillery plant” – similar to P. depressa or P. glauca
  • P. grandifolia, including “Coral” cultivar
  • P. semidentata
  • P. mucosa – similar to nummularifolia
  • Glassbox Tropicals varieties: “Purple Ecuador”, repens, and others. Note that high humididty-loving plants may struggle in typical household conditions.

Found a lot of these additional varieties by searching Google!

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