Most of us tend to hang on to our money, but when it comes to plants, we’re different. People love to pass on plants a friend admires, and that is how the popular Chinese Money Plant spread around the world. That’s why it is also called the Pass it On Plant. What’s especially unusual is how long it took before this plant caught the attention of the experts and actually got a ‘proper’ name. it’s a fascinating story, so let’s get started. You may have seen some of this story before, but we have uncovered additional facts, putting it all together in the most complete account yet written.
The Chinese Money Plant
One look at the Money Plant and it’s easy to see why it has become so popular. With plants taking the place of pets in so many homes – after all, they don’t scratch the furniture or sleep on your bed – plants that look like pets are super-desirable. That’s exactly the Money Plant, cute as a button, literally, because the leaves might look like coins, but they look like little green belly-buttons too. It forms a short stem, carrying lots of leaves on long stalks. Where most plants have the leaf stalks joined at the ends of the leaf, in this cute little guy they join close to the middle of the leaf, making a little indent and a yellow patch on the top of the leaf, exactly where they join. Older plants become more bushy, with several stems in a cluster. Simple, but charming, helped by the smooth, glossy finish of the leaf and their bright green coloring. This plant looks perfect sitting on a shelf, placed in the middle of a table, or on a window ledge.
You might have noticed that there are other, quite different plants also called ‘Money’. The Jade Plant, Crassula ovata, is also called ‘Money Plant’ by some people, perhaps because of the round, coin-like leaves. Then there is the Money Tree, Pachira aquatica, a small tree with a fascinating braided trunk made from 5 seedlings. The actual tree is called, among other things, Malabar chestnut, because it produces edible nuts (yours won’t, sorry). These braided trees were first created in 1986 by a hard-up truck driver, and they became symbols of luck with money. Decorated with red ribbons they are given as gifts to new businesses in Taiwan and throughout Asia. When they arrived in America, the ‘get rich’ part stuck, and they too became Money Trees. To avoid confusion, it is best to call the plant we are looking at the Chinese Money Tree, since that is where it came from.
How to Care for the Chinese Money Plant
The good news about the Chinese Money Plant is how easy it is to take care of. Place it in a bright spot away from hot direct sun – winter sun is fine – and water only when the soil is almost completely dry. The fleshy leaves hold water so you don’t need to mist it or anything, and as long as the leaves are shiny and firm, it doesn’t need watering. Wait till it looks a bit dull, or wait for the soil to become quite dry. Overwatering is the main reason these plants die. When repotting it is a good idea to use a soil for cactus or succulents, rather than a regular houseplant soil, but that isn’t vital, but it does help reduce the risk of overwatering.
If you also have real pets, you don’t need to worry if you see them taking an experimental nibble on your Chinese Money Plant. It isn’t poisonous, and losing a leaf or two isn’t going to hurt it either.
The Story of the Chinese Money Plant
We started out talking about how this plant spread around the world through friends long before it caught the attention of plant professionals. Here is the whole story.
China at the end of World War II was a dangerous place, with a civil war going on. That war dated back to the 1924, when there was an attempt between the right-wing Kuomintang Party and the Chinese Communist Party to free China of feuding warlords. In 1927 that alliance broke down, and fighting broke out between them, lasting until 1937. That was the year that Japan invaded China, and the Chinese rallied together to fight the common enemy. In 1945, after WWII the fighting broke out again, ending in 1949 with the victory of the Communists, and the escape of the Kuomintang leader, Chang Kai-Shek, and his supporters to the island of Taiwan.
Although dangerous, missionaries had always been working in China, and they were still there when WWII ended. A Norwegian missionary, Agnar Espegren, and his family were living in Hunan province, in the south, where, by coincidence, Mao Zedong was born. In 1945 the family left, probably ordered to go by the Communists, or just because it had become unsafe. They first went to the western city of Kunming, where it seems they acquired a plant, perhaps from a market. From there they went to Calcutta, India, and by March, 1946 they were back in Norway.
Among their luggage was the plant, still alive, and they kept it. Over the following years Agnar, who travelled extensively, passed on pieces to friends and acquaintances, and it soon spread to neighboring Sweden, becoming popular as a plant to gift to others. Pieces root easily in water or soil, so making more was never a problem.
In 1963 the Chinese Money Plant arrived in England. A family called Sidbottom lived in Cornwall, and they had a Norwegian au pair helping in their home. She took a holiday back home, and when she returned she had a Chinese Money Plant with her. From the Sidbottoms it spread around England, and by the 1970s it was being widely grown. There may of course have been other introductions from Sweden or Norway to England.
For all this time, nobody knew what the plant actually was, and it wasn’t being grown in the nursery industry. In 1978 a Mrs. Walport, who lived in Northolt, West London, had a stem of her plant produce flowers.
She sent a piece to the botanists at Kew Gardens, not far from where she lived, asking them what it was. Those flowers were vital, because the formal identification of plants is made with flowers, and without them any name is ultimately just a guess. Flowering of the Chinese Money Plant is rare, so that precious piece was the clue needed. It took some serious research through dried specimens held at the famous Kew Herbarium to be sure, but a botanist called Wessel Marais did it, identifying the Money Plant as Pilea peperomioides. In 1912, a previously unknown plant collected in China was named as Pilea peperomioides by Dr. Friedrich Ludwig Emil Diels, a German botanist who became the director of Berlin Botanic Gardens the following year. Peperomia is another popular houseplant, and it does have similar leaves to the Money Plant, which probably inspired the name Dr. Diels gave this new plant.
Diels official description and name was published in “Notes of the Edinburgh Botanic Garden”, where the specimen of this unknown plant was, among the collections of George Forrest, a famous British collector who worked in China. His notes indicate that he found the plant in 1906, in what was then called the Tsangshan mountain range (today it is called Cangshan Mountain). In Yunnan, the mountains are a short distance from Kunming – where Agnar Espegren bought his plant in 1945.
Much of this story was pieced together by the garden writer, Robert Pearson. He wrote for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, and in 1983, once the plant had been named, he wrote a piece on this plant, and asked for information on how it might have ended up in England, without going through ‘official’ channels as a new introduction by a nursery, as most plants arrive. The Sidbottoms were one family that contacted him, and we already told their story. The article was also seen by Dr Lars Kers of the Botanic Garden in Stockholm, and he realized he had this plant growing. He went on Swedish television with the story, and the 10,000 letters he received showed it was already widely grown in Sweden. Among these responses was one that made the link to that Norwegian missionary, Agnar Espegren, and the tale was complete. What a tale it has been!
Of course, none of this explains how the plant came to North America, but it might have taken a similar route. We do know, from an article published around 1983 by the Royal Horticultural Society, that earlier Brian Halliwell, one of the curators of the living plant collections at Kew Gardens, he seen, while on a visit to British Columbia, Canada, spotted a plant in someone’s house they had bought at a local garden center. So it had already reached the west coast by then.
Every Story Needs a Moral
Not only does this story paint a fascinating picture of the way a plant can travel around the world, passed on from one pair of hands to another. If it has another, more serious, moral.
Those dusty collections in the world’s botanic gardens might have often been gathered under regrettable colonial circumstances, but that doesn’t detract from the work of the many courageous and intrepid collectors and scientists who assembled them. They are not just ‘ivory tower’ stuff, but still valuable today, often in ways we don’t even know yet. No piece of science is without value, and they all should be preserved carefully, especially in this age of fake news, conspiracy theories and disinformation.