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The Instagram-famous plant that used to be impossible to find

What started as a niche social media trend has spread to big brands like Walmart and Home Depot.

a small green plant with coin-shaped leaves and long stems
The Pilea peperomioides, looking quite Instagrammable.
Getty Images/EyeEm

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What it is: A hardy plant, called Pilea peperomioides, that once grew on rocks in the shade in the southwestern Yunnan province of China. It grows about a foot tall and forms orbs of brightly verdant round leaves. Now it’s rare in its native habitat but everywhere in homes.

Where it is: About two years ago, plant enthusiasts could only get Pilea peperiomiodes cuttings from their friends or personal growers on Instagram or Etsy. Gradually, trendy plant delivery services began to acquire them from regional nurseries. Now, big-box retailers like Home Depot, Walmart, and Amazon sell these plants, as well as direct-to-consumer plant outlets like the Sill. They appear in Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters planter ads, and Ikea sells a fake version. They’re featured on the accounts of #plantfluencers like Hilton Carter, Erin Harding, and Morgan Doane.

Why you’re seeing it everywhere: The scarcity-driven social media hype has continued even as the Pilea peperomioides has reached mainstream availability, in part because they’re tough but distinctive houseplants. The plants grow and reproduce quickly, sprouting small pups in the surrounding soil. They’ve evolved to prefer a dry and shady habitat, which fits the description of most modern homes. They aren’t toxic to children or animals and are easy to recognize in a houseplant lineup.

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Designer Aisha Richardson first saw Pilea peperomioides on her Instagram feed about two years ago. From the beginning, she felt a strong attachment to the plant because of its coin-shaped leaves and vivid green color. “It’s so cute,” she says. “When you see a plant you like, you research it, you read about it, you want it.” But she did not immediately get it because, at that time, these plants were not widely available in the United States.

So Richardson drew on her ties within the Instagram community. She found an account that was selling 4-inch cuttings for $45 each. There was no promise that the plants, which were only about four or five leaves each, would sprout roots, but Richardson decided to take the risk. “I DMed [the seller] and I was number 10 on her waiting list,” she says. Eventually, she got the chance to pay a not-insignificant amount of money for the houseplant.

It’s dead now.

Richardson’s plant’s fate is not unique. Alexandre Monro, who is a taxonomist, systematist, and field botanist at Kew Gardens, also killed his personal Pilea peperomioides, which he received as a cutting from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Monro studies the genus, Pilea, the largest in the nettle family with more than 700 species. But his expertise didn’t save his houseplant.

He says he may have overwatered it. The plant grows naturally on limestone boulders in the shade of forests in southwest China, so it’s accustomed to dry, relatively low-light habitats and thrives in people’s houses. It’s rare in the wild because of deforestation and land management changes during China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, according to Monro. The species traveled from China to Norway in 1946 by way of a Norwegian missionary who lived for several years in China. He shared the plant with friends all over Norway, where it then spread throughout the world, according to Phillip Cribb, an honorary research fellow at Kew Gardens who has studied the history of Pilea peperomioides.

Monro first saw the species in El Salvador. That specimen he saw had yellow spots, which he says were quite cute — but they were likely caused by a virus, since every Pilea houseplant in the world is the asexually reproduced offspring of, most likely, a single plant, or a few plants at most. Monro says he has never seen any female flowers in cultivation, though Cribb reports that he has.

A plant with circular leaves in a planter
A Pilea peperomioides on Urban Outfitters’ website.
Urban Outfitters

Though her first Pilea died, Richardson now owns three of these clones. The way she acquired these plants closely follows the way they spread across the US marketplace over the past five years. Richardson subscribes to the NYC-based plant subscription company Horti. She added a Pilea to her normal monthly delivery, and it cost $25. She also found that the Sill, one of her favorite plant stores, was offering a free Pilea with the purchase of $60 worth of plants. “I like the idea of how they grow like weeds. It’s called the friendship plant because you can just break the pups off,” she says. “Plants just make people happy.” Richardson laughed, because she realized she had just quoted the Sill’s tagline.

The Sill is one of the standouts of the modern era of plant e-commerce. It launched in 2012 in New York City, and still has two physical locations there and a recently opened store in LA. It caters to mainly urban millennials and has recently raised $7.5 million in funding.

Erin Marino, the director of marketing, has worked there since the first year and has watched many species of plants, such as Monstera deliciosa and Ficus lyrata (a.k.a. the fiddle-leaf fig) rise in popularity. She traces these trends to social media, noting that after Pinterest became popular around 2010, sharing aspirational photos became easy. And plants are often an inexpensive way to imitate the pictures on Instagram and Pinterest, compared to investing in a new house, art, or appliances. “In all honesty, they’re a pretty cheap piece of furniture,” says Marino.

The Sill has slightly higher prices than big-box retail stores, though they’re comparable to those of other online shops. At the time of writing, they sell 3-inch Pilea peperomioides for $13. Home Depot recently started providing 6-inch pots for about $23, Walmart has 4-inch plants for $6.50, and at Amazon, 2-inch pots are available for $13.95. Home Depot sources plants from United Nursery, a Florida-based houseplant wholesale company.

It took a while for these mainstream large growing nurseries to warm up to the new species. “They’re scared to put their resources to growing something new,” says Marino, though she has recently noticed a shift. “Growers have started to commercialize and grow it.” The Sill announced it was interested in stocking Pilea peperomioides, and about a year and a half ago, one of its regional New Jersey nurseries was able to deliver.

Plants come in and out of fashion, much like jeans or dog breeds. But Marino thinks Pilea is here to stay in American markets, especially if the price continues to go down because of more widespread availability. “Aesthetically, they’re adorable. And they’re 100 percent nontoxic,” she says. Many houseplants, such as the peace lily, philodendron, and alocasia, can harm curious pets and children if eaten. “As people are bringing the outdoors in, they are being a little more careful about bringing it into their space.”

But Richardson says her Pilea plants have not delivered on the amount of time, energy, and money she has put into them. Still, she learned some lessons. “After my Pilea debacle, I’ve realized I can’t have the type of plants that I like,” she says. “I’m trying to stick to a lot of low-light plants.” She predicts the next It Plant will be string of pearls, Senecio rowleyanus, a low-maintenance succulent that hangs over its pot like jewelry. Marino says she is noticing the growing popularity of plants from the genus Calathea. They have large, colorful leaves, do well in shady rooms, and move throughout the day according to sun and water patterns.

There’s been a growing buzz around the Zamioculcas zamiifolia “Raven,” an all-black variety of the nearly indestructible ZZ plant, which won the 2018 award for Best New Plant at the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition. At the time of writing, rooted 4-inch cuttings are on sale on Etsy for a whopping $75. As with the Pilea, the price will probably go down in a few months. As Richardson says: “Some plants just take time.”

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