Plant of the Week
Latin: Pilea cadierei
Thirty years ago, houseplants were all the rage. The morning news shows ran stories on them, and sales jumped from $30 million in 1970 to $280 million by 1975. Then our collective attention shifted, and growing houseplants became passé.
It was during this period, that I first became acquainted with the aluminum plant, Pilea cadierei.
The 200 species of Pileas known to science are members of the nettle family and native to tropical places around the world. The aluminum plant grows as a freely branched herb and reaches about a foot tall. It has slender but succulent stems that swell between the nodes.
The leaves are opposite, toothed and 2 to 3 inches long with three prominent veins running the length of the blade. The vein and adjacent cells remain dark green but the interveinal spaces of the leaves are painted with a silver coating, separated here and there by green bands as the main veins branch.
Aluminum plant flowers with the tiny white flowers borne in terminal clusters that struggle to be interesting, for ornamental they are not.
The primary reason behind the skyrocketing of foliage plant sales was because of a shift in the way plants were marketed. Grocery chains opened floral departments in the late 1960s with big retail stores followed suite with their own plant departments. Instead of having to make a special trip to a florist or nursery, plants suddenly became available at every turn.
Other reasons supported the movement. This period was the time of resurgence in environmental awareness, unequaled in scope since the turn of the century when Teddy Roosevelt led the drive to protect much of our national lands.
Rachel Carson’s blockbuster book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962, and it was followed by a spate of coffee table books extolling the beauty of and the threat to our natural environment.
We Baby Boomers were moving into colleges and the workforce in ever-increasing numbers and, armed with the outrage and certainty of youth, were ready for change.
The catalyst for much of this change, or it seems to me, was the June 1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland, Ohio that became a tipping point for the environmental movement.
The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. The widely televised fire and the Earth Day movement embarrassed Congress into action, spawning clean water legislation and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. The Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.
The lowly aluminum plant was just one of the many houseplants that appeared during this era. It was first described by a pair of French botanists in 1928 while Vietnam was still a French colony. It was introduced into the U.S. in 1952 from Europe.
Though usually grown as a small tabletop plant or on the windowsill, aluminum plant is also useful in or near water gardens. Unrooted aluminum plant stems can be dropped into aquariums where they survive for long periods.
Knowing of their ability to survive in water, last summer I dropped an aluminum plant - pot and all - into my shaded, foot-deep water garden. The pot toppled over submerging the foliage, but it was left in that position to see what would happen. The stems turned and grew upright and the plant was perfectly happy all summer long.
In October, I covered the pool with netting to keep the leaves out, leaving the pot in the water. This spring when I removed the netting the plant was still alive with a few leaves hanging on, apparently not at all resentful of its cold wintertime exile to my fish pond.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - April 7, 2006
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.