Friday, September 23, 2011

Pilea Cadierei

My very first book about indoor plants, which also continues to be one of my favourites, is ‘House Plants’ by Reader’s Digest that I picked it up back in the early 90s. ‘House Plants’ is a compact little gem filled with attractive colour photographs, sound advice and handy information. I don’t remember where I bought it but I do remember that it didn’t take long before it became my cherished ‘houseplant owner’s’ manual.

Things were much different back in those days than they are now. For one thing, there was no internet with its wealth of information; if you were a novice with a sincere interest in educating yourself about indoor gardening to better care for your plants, you couldn’t just surf the web. Your options were the following:

1. buy a book (or two or three) about houseplants

2. borrow a few books from the library, over and over again

3. pick the brains of people you know personally who have extensive experience in houseplant care (until you become a nuisance and they all start to avoid you)

4. drop by regularly (2, 3 or more times a week) at the local greenhouse to harass question the staff about houseplant care (until security arrives to escort you outside - again)

Option 3 was not good for me; most of my friends, relatives and neighbours are not experienced enough with indoor plants for it to be worth my while to annoy them with incessant questions. Option 4 was definitely out of the question; I’m not pushy enough to do that. Plus, the security guard encounter would have been more embarrassment than I can handle. And although I love bringing home books from the library, I couldn’t be bothered taking them back. That left what’s behind door number 1, which had a price tag attached to it, but was worth every cent. By investing in a good book that I read from front to back a multitude of times, I acquired considerable knowledge that, together with hands-on experience, paved the way to a greener thumb.

So this little book played a key role in my early houseplant days by teaching me some basic – but very important – skills that are required to succeed with indoor gardening. This in turn contributed to the wellbeing of my plants. But that’s not all it did. It also introduced me to the vast selection of houseplants that I had no idea existed. No matter how many times I went through this book, I couldn’t get over the plants depicted in the photos, plants I’d never seen in person - anywhere. And I certainly wanted many of them. Many, many of them.

On the umpteenth time of flipping through the pages of this book, I decided to add sticky notes to all the plants that I wanted to grow eventually – if I could find them. The list of houseplants that I longed for was quite long and included: Vriesea splendens (Flaming Sword), Beaucarnea recurvata (Ponytail Palm), Aphelandra squarrosa (Zebra Plant), Sansevieria trifasciata (Snake Plant), Ficus elastica (Rubber Plant), Araucaria heterophylla (Norfolk Island Pine), Neoregelia carolinae Tricolor (Blushing Bromeliad), Aechmea fasciata (Urn Plant), Maranta leuconeura (Prayer Plant), Cordyline terminalis (Ti Plant) and numerous others.

I flipped through my Reader’s Digest book a few days ago and was surprised to find that I have, at some point, grown almost every single plant that I had marked with a sticky note. And the plant I’m writing about today is Pilea cadierei, which may not be one of my top ten favourites, but it certainly is pretty enough to mention.

Caring For The Aluminum Plant

Pilea cadierei, native to Vietnam, is grown for its beautifully-variegated foliage. With fleshy leaves that look like they’ve been splashed with ‘aluminum’ paint, this Pilea is generally quite easy to grow, even for beginners. An interesting thing that I read in my RD book about this plant is that the silver markings on the leaves are raised, giving the foliage a quilted look. I’ve never really noticed this, to be honest, and if I had a Pilea cadierei growing in my home right now, which I don’t, I’d take a closer look to see if this is true. In the meantime, I’ll just take my book’s word for it. Or you can check the leaves of your own Pilea cadierei, if you have one, and let me know. This effect, by the way, is caused by pockets of air under the upper surface of the leaf. Or so I’m told. Fascinating, no?


Pilea cadierei does not need to bask in the southern sun all year round; the leaves will probably burn to a crisp in such a location. Nor does it want to be placed in a shady position the whole twelve months. What it wants is good light, year round, which may require a change in its location when the low light seasons (fall and winter) shift to the high light periods (spring and summer) – and vice versa. Without sufficient light, it will grow leggy and quite unattractive – very quickly. And with too much light, it will sunburn.


During the fall and winter, place your plant near a window that offers very bright light. I would also suggest allowing it to enjoy some direct early morning eastern or late afternoon western sun. In a southern location, you can attempt a couple of hours of direct light through a sheer curtain and watch your plant for signs of contentment or discontentment. If your Pilea can handle the direct sun, great, if not, filter it through a sheer curtain, move the plant further back from the window or try another location, like the east or western ones.

When the spring and summer seasons arrive, curtain-filtered sunlight in the east or west should be handled very well. During this period, especially in mid-summer, move your plant out of the direct path of sunlight if you have it in a southern location; always protect it against the strong, midday rays of the warmest months of the year. You can attempt to grow your plant in a northern location, right up against a window where it may do reasonably well during the spring and summer, maybe, but I won’t recommend it as an ideal location, particularly during the fall and winter days.

The plant will thrive in a room where it’s warm but not too hot. Average home temperatures between 18°C (65°F) – 24°C (75°F) are ideal, although not much of a fuss will be made if levels go as low as 16°C (60°F) or as high as 27°C (80°F) or 29°C (85°F). Although the plant would prefer to be placed in areas where it’s not too hot, it will tolerate warmer temperatures that are imposed upon it if the humidity is high (above 60 percent). Make sure to protect against the cold; keep your plant out of the direct path of cold drafts and move it off the windowsill on frosty nights.

Plenty of humidity, between 40 to 60 percent, is required to keep your Pilea happy. If the air is too dry, the tips and margins of the leaves will turn brown and crispy, and an invitation will be sent to overjoyed spider mites to move in. Improve humidity levels by placing your plant on a pebble tray, by keeping a humidifier nearby, by double-potting and filling the space between the containers with damp peat moss, by grouping plants together to form a microclimate with higher humidity or by growing your plant in a room where humidity is naturally higher.

Use an airy, quick-draining soil and keep it evenly moist during the warmest months of the year. Allow it to dry slightly between each watering session, and then water thoroughly. During the cooler months, water carefully to avoid rot; allow the soil to dry out a little more. Never let the soil dry out completely; the plant does not handle drought very well. The root system of this plant is quite small therefore repotting is seldom needed. Pinch out growing tips regularly to keep the plant shrubby. Cut back the plant to rejuvenate it when it starts to become leggy and unappealing. Shower the plant frequently to keep pests at bay.

Switch to hydroculture for an alternative growing style. Conversion is fairly quick with few signs of stress. You can transplant the entire specimen, or you can take cuttings (the easiest way), root them in water and then plant them in clay pebbles when water roots form. If you decide to transfer from soil to pellets from the get go, provide your plant with high levels of humidity to help it get through the transition effortlessly.

No matter how experienced a grower you are, you cannot stop the inevitable demise of the Pilea cadierei. As it ages, it will eventually get so leggy and unattractive that it’ll end up in the trash. Under the most ideal conditions, you can expect 4 or 5 good years with this plant, although I’d say about 2 or 3 is more realistic. Cuttings root very easily, so instead of trying to retain old specimens year after year with incessant pinching and pruning, which will eventually not make much of a difference, start new plants each spring.

Pilea cadierei may not be one of my top ten favourites, or anyone else’s for that matter, but it’s so easy to grow that you end up picking one up just for that reason alone. It’s a plant that strokes your plant-growing ego when some of the others – like the Alocasia – bruise it. And we all need a little ego stroking now and then, no matter how experienced – or not - we are with houseplants.

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