Plant profiles: Peperomias
Peperomias are a perennial favorite (pun intended) houseplant, and are gaining even popularity with the revived houseplant trend. Because of their hardy nature, they make excellent beginner plants; they also stay quite compact, making them choice plants for windowsills, desktops, terrariums, and dish gardens! Distant relatives of Piper nigrum (i.e. black pepper, one of the most common spices in the world), Peperomias typically have round leaves of a somewhat succulent nature and fleshy stems. They can trail (ex. Peperomia prostrata), grow upright (ex. P. obtusifolia), or clump (ex. P. caperata), and have a variety of foliage textures: quilted, corrugated, hairy, or smooth. There are over 1,500 species alone, with new hybrids and cultivars being bred constantly. One aspect that makes Peperomias easy to identify is their iconic, rat tail-like inflorescences. It’s reminiscent of the spadix on an aroid inflorescence: a spongy cone packed tightly with tiny little flowers!
Peperomias are sometimes referred to as “baby rubber plants” (although they’re in no way related to Ficus elastica) or “radiator plants.” Common names will vary depending on the species as well, for example: P. puteolata goes by stilt Peperomia or parallel Peperomia due to its upright, almost leggy growing habit. P. argyreia is known as a watermelon Peperomia because the foliage has patterning reminiscent of a watermelon rind.
As I mentioned above, peps are very easy-going little plant friends, and don’t require a lot from their owner. They only thing you have to watch out for is overwatering - Peperomias absolutely cannot stand wet feet! I’ve found most Peperomia species to have relatively similar care, so this post covers all of them. Read on! 👉
Lighting: Peperomias do well in a variety of light levels, from indirect northern light to bright diffused light. They even thrive under fluorescent office lights! Since most species of peperomias are slow growers in general, placing them in moderate to bright light will help them grow faster. I have all of my peperomias in east and west-facing windows and they are thriving and blooming constantly.
Watering: Finding the sweet spot for watering is the really the only tricky part about owning Peperomias. The potting mix should be allowed to dry down a good bit, but not so much that the stems start to droop. Overwatering can cause root rot and oedema, but repeated underwatering that causes stem droop can harm roots as well. Observe your Peperomia and note how long it takes between waterings for the plant to noticeably droop, then make sure to water a day or two before then. So, if it takes your Peperomia 7 days to get droopy after a watering, best practice would be to water after about 5 days. Of course, lighting, container material, soil, temp, and humidity factor into how often you’re going to water! It’s a bit of of a learning curve with peps, but once you figure out a routine, it’s easy going.
Some Peperomias are more prone to being overwatered than others. P. obtusifolia - an upright species - has thick, sturdy stems and is incredibly drought tolerant. Even if I watered it before I need to, it doesn’t fuss at me! Other species that have thin, fleshy stems (usually the clumping types), tend to be the ones that fuss when overwatered. As always, reduce frequency of watering during the winter months, when light, temperature, and humidity levels are lower and growth slows down.
Humidity + temperature: Even though Peperomias hail from tropical rainforests in Central and South America, they don't require any extra humidity and are perfectly content in average household humidity and temperature! They are not cold-hardy, however, so keep them in temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. And even though they don’t require any additional humidity, they are perfectly content in terrariums.
Soil + fertilizer: Since many Peperomias are easy to overwater, they do best in a potting soil that is light, airy, and well-draining. Peperomia roots need lots of oxygen, so adding amendments to your soil like perlite, gravel, or sand is a smart move. Also make sure that your Peperomia pot has drainage holes, and aerate the soil frequently so that it doesn’t compact. As far as fertilizer goes, a balanced fert is fine once or twice a month during growing season.
Repotting: Since most Peperomias stay fairly small, you won’t need to pot up often. You can repot once a year simply to refresh soil if you wish. Most of my Peperomias are in 4” pots or smaller and will stay in those pots indefinitely. One of my species, P. polybotrya, is the exception and is in a 6” pot since it can grow tall over the years. As I mentioned above, just make sure the containers you use have adequate drainage holes!
Propagation: Peps are easy to propagate from stem and leaf tip cuttings. Many houseplants need a node (the point where the petiole meets the stem), but Peperomias are an exception to that rule. You can take a leaf with some stem and stick it right in water or soil. The same works for leaf tip cuttings, although I find tip cuttings take much longer to root.
- Slightly wilted even though recently watered: roots need oxygen! Make sure the potting mix is nice and airy, the pot has drainage, and you regularly aerate the soil.
- Oedema: this is caused by overwatering. Oedema presents itself as brown, raise, corky splotches or swellings on the foliage. Cut down watering, especially in winter months!
- Browning edges/tips - typically due to drafts and cold. Remember, peperomias are tropical plants!
P. caperata ‘Red Ripple’ is one of the many colorful Peperomia cultivars popular on the market.