Few species of foliage plants offer the diversity of leaf size, shape, color, and texture of peperomias (pep-er-OH-mee-uhz). These members of the pepper family (the name means “resembling pepper”), native to tropical America, are highly decorative houseplants that are easy to grow. Plus, they are non-toxic to pets.
Most peperomias are dwarf and compact, rarely exceeding 12 inches in height. Some species have thread-like trailing stems, while others have thick, succulent, upright stems. Some species are particularly well suited for hanging baskets or dish gardens. They’re grown for the decorative leaves, the flowers (if seen at all) being elongated, upright spikes resembling a tail.
Leaf shapes may vary from heart-shaped to lance-shaped, although the most common peperomias have rounded leaves. Colors may range from solid green to striped or marbled. Leaves may be outlined in pale green, yellow, creamy white, red, or gray. The leaf stems of some types are red or pinkish. Leaf surfaces may be smooth, shiny, or rippled.
Peperomias may be grown in pots, shallow pans (dish gardens), or in hanging baskets. A soil composed of peat moss, loam, or sand, or any potting mixture with good water drainage can be used. Peperomias, as a rule, should be kept slightly pot-bound.
The soil should not be overly fertile. Too much fertility can injure roots, or cause excessive growth. Use a houseplant fertilizer, according to label rates, about once a month in summer or when plants are growing, and about every three to four months otherwise. Or, you can use half strength fertilizer, twice as often.
Don't let the soil for peperomias get too wet, as these plants are highly susceptible to stem and root rot and to “oedema” (o-DEE-mah) — a non-parasitic disease that appears as corky, raised swellings on the undersides of leaves. Water plants only when the soil is quite dry, and in winter make sure water is room temperature and not cold. Often, watering once a week is sufficient. Drench the soil thoroughly and make sure the pot drains excess water, and that saucers are emptied. If in doubt, don’t water. Plants are much happier when the soil is too dry, than too wet.
On the other hand, coming from humid rainforests originally, they prefer higher humidity than is found in most homes, particularly during winter. Place them near a humidifier, or on a tray of pebbles which is kept moist, in order to keep humidity levels higher around them in dry rooms.
These plants thrive in bright light, although they will tolerate poor light even at high temperatures. Variegated leaves, however, lose their coloration in poor light. They grow well under plant grow lights or on lighted plant stands. Avoid direct sun in summer. Peperomias do well in average to warm temperatures during the day (65 to 75 degrees F is a good range), and no lower than about 50 degrees.
If you trim back plants, or want to propagate them, this can be done with leaf cuttings, similar to African violet propagation. Remove a large leaf with piece of the stalk, and stick this end into a seedling starting mix or combination of vermiculite and perlite. Using a rooting hormone on the cut end may help. Place cuttings in a warm spot and bright, but not direct, light. “Tent” them in a plastic bag to maintain high humidity.
The only pest that you usually may find on these are the white, cottony mealybugs. Simply wipe these off with a damp cloth, or with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.
Of the over 1,500 different peperomias, several are commonly found at garden outlets. The baby rubber plant or blunt-leaved peperomia (Peperomia obtusifolia) has glossy, thick, rounded leaves with a waxy surface. These are held close to stems that can get to one foot tall on upright plants. This is a common species with several cultivars (cultivated varieties) with variously colored leaves—‘Variegata’ with irregular creamy areas, ‘Green and Gold’ with golden areas on leaves, ‘Golden Gate’ with creamy-white edges, ‘Tricolor’ with cream variegation and pink leaf edges, ‘Sensation’ with purple stems and gold areas on leaves, ‘Alba’ with creamy leaves and red streaks on stems, ‘Gold Tip’ marbled with gold toward leaf tips, the common ‘Albo-marginata’ with creamy margins on pale green leaves, and the short ‘Minima’ with small, dark green leaves.
Emerald ripple (P. caperata) is another commonly found peperomia. The heart-shaped, green leaves are so dark that they appear almost purple. Leaves are quite wrinkled, hence the name, held on pink to reddish stalks. This species only grows about six inches high, with a mounded habit. You may find variations of this species such as the reddish-purple ‘Red Ripple’, the dark red ‘Theresa’, or the silvery ‘Suzanne.’
Watermelon peperomia (P. argyreia) has rounded leaves, striped silvery white and green, resembling a watermelon rind. It has a similar height and mounded habit to emerald ripple. Appearing much the same is the parallel peperomia (P. puteolata), its elongated dark green leaves featuring parallel silvery-white stripes.
Red-edged peperomia ‘Variegata’ (P. clusiifolia) has dark green leaves with red edges. In the same species is the cultivar ‘Rainbow’, with light green leaves flushed pink and with creamy yellow edges. Another cultivar of this species is ‘Jelly’, its large green leaves being edged in cream and pink.
Good for terrariums, with its small dark-green teardrop-shaped leaves is the teardrop peperomia (P. orba). For hanging baskets look for the trailing or cupid peperomia (P. scandens) with small, heart-shaped leaves, or prostrate peperomia (P. rotundifolia) with tiny, dark green leaves on slender, trailing stems.
The next time you’re looking for an easy houseplant for yourself or to give someone, particularly a beginning gardener or even a non-gardener that likes houseplants, consider one of these peperomias or their many other varieties with names such as Beetle, Belly button, or Bibi.