Its real name is Pilea peperomioides, also called the Chinese Money Plant and the Missionary Plant, but in our family it’s ‘Nicked from Norway’ as my mother-in-law brought a small plant back from a visit to Norway, about fifteen years ago. Mine is a third- or fourth-generation offshoot of that original plant and this is the first time I’ve seen one in flower (or at least, in bud).
This post is about the intriguing story of how Pilea peperomioides came to be a popular houseplant, entirely below the radar of European botanists and horticulturalists.
I found out more about this plant from an article by Phillip Cribb and Leonard Forman, writing in the 1980s for the Royal Horticultural Society. Their article is reproduced on the wildchicken blog A Chinese puzzle solved – Pilea peperomioides.
Cribb and Forman wrote:
“In recent years, few plants have puzzled botanists more than the Chinese money plant. Sterile specimens of it, with its characteristic bright green, fleshy, peltate leaves, appeared regularly at the enquiry desks of Kew, Edinburgh and Wisley from the mid 1970s onwards to be returned with non-committal suggestions such as ‘possibly a Peperomia’, ‘please send flowers next time’ or ‘we do not identify sterile material’.
Progress on its identification was first made in 1978 when Mrs D. Walport of Northolt sent leaves and an inflorescence of tiny male flowers for identification to Kew. The leaves indeed resembled certain species of Peperomia in the Piperaceae yet the tiny male flowers indicated that it belonged to the stinging nettle family, Urticaceae. Eventually, a diligent search by the Kew botanist Wessel Marais suggested that the plant was a Chinese species of Pilea which had been named in 1912 by the German botanist Friedrich Diels as P. peperomioides, a singularly appropriate name.”
But the question remained – how did Pilea peperomioides (now identified as a distant relative of the stinging nettle) reach Europe and become a popular houseplant?
Cribb and Forman continued:
“Botanists from Scandinavia visiting the Kew Herbarium were shown specimens of Pilea peperomioides, but none of them had ever seen it before. They were, however, asked to make enquiries in their own countries. Eventually, the problem came to the attention of Dr Lars Kers of the Bergius Botanic Garden in Stockholm who then realised that the unknown plant he was growing in his own home which he had obtained from a relative in Sweden in 1976 was P. peperomioides. He searched Swedish horticultural literature for further information, but to no avail. As in Britain, the plant was unknown in botanic gardens and to the horticultural trade. He therefore arranged for the plant to be presented on a popular Swedish television programme, a step which proved to be more productive than had been bargained for since it resulted in an avalanche of some 10,000 letters! This at least proved that P. peperomioides was a very popular houseplant in Sweden.
Amongst this massive response came the final link in the extraordinary story. It turned out that a Norwegian missionary, Agnar Espegren, brought the plant to Norway from China in 1946. In 1944 the Norwegian missionaries in China had had to leave. Agnar Espegren and his family, then living in Hunan province, were taken by an American plane to Kunming in Yunnan where they stayed about a week awaiting further transport to India. During this brief stay in Kunming, which is only some 150 miles east of the Dali range, Mr Espegren obtained a live specimen of the plant (possibly from a local market) and packed it in a small box, which was then brought together with his family and all their baggage to Calcutta where they stayed for nearly a year. The Espegren family arrived back in Norway in March 1946 with the plant miraculously still alive.
Mr Espegren subsequently travelled widely in Norway and often gave basal shoots of the plant to friends. In this way the plant was effectively distributed around Norway where it is now widespread as a window sill plant, and where it is known as ‘the missionary plant’.”
So the gift of the plant to my mother-in-law by her friend in Norway (she didn’t actually nick it, but probably didn’t bring it to the attention of the customs officers) now connects our plant – ultimately – to a Norwegian missionary being evacuated from China in the 1940s.
There’s more interesting detail in the article which is well worth reading in full. I also like this story because of the gracious acknowledgement of the role that amateurs can play:
“The piecing together of this Chinese puzzle has demonstrated how effective the combination of amateur gardener and professional botanist can be as sleuth. For us part of the charm of the Chinese money plant is the story of its strange and convoluted journey from its home in furthest Yunnan to Northolt and beyond.”