Peperomias are not wildly thrilling, but they do have a certain flair,’ writes Tovah Martin in her book The Unexpected Houseplant. Talk about damning with faint praise. She does have a point. Peperomias lack the imposing physicality of a 3m Monstera deliciosa embracing a moss pole, or the peacock patterning of a colourful Calathea, but I adore them for the sheer variety of leaf textures and for their diminutive size. For those without floor space for expansive specimens, peperomias are compact enough to house a sizeable collection on a modest shelving unit or windowsill.
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Sally Williams, who holds the National Collection of Peperomia, has a plant room packed with 500 peperomias to tend while her Peak District garden is hidden under a freezing, white blanket of snow. There are familiars, such as the radiator plant (P. caperata), which has crinkled leaves like toes after a long bath, and the watermelon peperomia (P. argyreia) with heart-shaped glossy leaves draped in silver stripes, but I’m drawn to some rarities, too. One with foliage the colour and texture of toad skin is labelled P. hutchisonii, while lifting a misty bell jar reveals a mass of minute leaves strung on the thread-like stems of P. bangroana.
Sally’s collection demonstrates the diversity and scale of the Peperomia clan. Attempt to discover something seemingly simple, such as how many species are in the genus, and the answer varies from 1,300 to 1,600. Matt Candeias, a botanist and fellow Peperomia lover, tells me that Peperomia is an ancient group of plants that has evolved to thrive in a wide range of environments around the world, with concentrations in Central and South America and in Africa. Why does all this matter to you and me, tending a cluster of watermelon leaves or untangling the stems of a string of turtles (P. prostrata)? Finding out about where your Peperomia hails from helps inform how you care for it.
The vast majority of peperomias you’ll find unhelpfully labelled merely as ‘foliage plant’ in your local supermarket or DIY store grow as epiphytes in rainforests, clinging to clefts in a tree where they enjoy humid air and dappled light. These – including rosette types, such as the watermelon peperomia, and trailers, such as the cupid peperomia (P. nitida) – have modest rootballs and store water in their fleshy stems and leaves. Root rot is the peperomia’s number one enemy: know this, and you’ll find them among the most easy-going and undemanding houseplants you can grow.
Sally raises her plants in terracotta pots, planted in an airy mix of two parts peat-free, general-purpose potting mix, one part orchid bark and one part perlite, and keeps the air moist by misting – watering just once a month. Succulent species, such as P. columella, P. ferreyrae and the toadlike P. hutchisonii, generally hail from high altitudes in South America, particularly Peru, adapting to arid conditions and dry air by folding their leaves in half like a taco when water is in short supply: these prefer an even more free-draining, gritty mix and will thrive in a sunny, south-facing window. Rare trailing species, such as P. bangroana, require really high humidity and do best creeping around in a shady, sealed terrarium.
How to propagate Peperomia
The key to successful Peperomia propagation is to know whether your specimen will root from a section of stem, a leaf petiole cutting or even, miraculously – from a section of leaf. The general rule is that rosette-forming types will propagate from a leaf petiole cutting, while trailing peperomias will grow roots from a length of stem.
- Take a clear plastic pot with a tight fitting lid – a recycled hummus pot is ideal.
- Place a trickle of water so the bottom is just covered and then add the leaf or section of stem, curling it around the edges of the pot if necessary.
- Place the lid on and leave on a bright windowsill out of direct sun.
- Check every week until roots and shoots have appeared, then pot up into gritty compost.
This method works for most peperomias except succulent types such as P. columella, which can be rooted straight into gritty compost instead.