Often the common name of a plant perfectly describes it, but the name is inaccurate botanically. The common name has developed over the years because of the plant’s appearance or because of some other unique attribute. Such is the case with the artillery fern, which is not really a fern at all. It got its common name because of its habit of dispersing its pollen in an explosive fashion.
The artillery fern (Pilea microphylla) looks like a fern, having tiny bright-green leaves on stiff stems that closely resemble fronds. It is not nearly as large as most ferns, growing only 25 to 30 cm tall but its branches are quite long and a mature plant can have a width of close to 50 cm. The branches are held at a slightly upright angle, making it a great tabletop plant as the branches won’t trail.
This plant is native to Florida, Central and South America and Mexico, where it is often considered a weed — being invasive and seeding everywhere. Because it is a Zone 9 plant it is not a problem here — and is generally propagated by cuttings.
The artillery fern is a member of the pilea plant family which contains over 600 species. The foliage of these plants can vary from six-cm-long leaves that are strongly textured to leaves that are tiny and heart shaped, depending on the variety. Many varieties are used as pot plants because of their unique foliage, and they are small — perfect for terrariums, dish gardens and mixed indoor containers — liking the high humidity that these environments provide. Pilea are not used outdoors in our area; they are very susceptible to cold and any amount of frost will kill them.
There are a couple of very popular pilea varieties that are quite well known. One is the aluminum plant, which is named because of its silvery foliage. The green leaves are overlaid with silver streaks and markings. Another variety, “Moon Valley,” has attractive saw-tooth leaf edges that are chartreuse in colour with burgundy markings. The leaf surfaces are deeply textured and are said to resemble the craters on the moon’s surface and hence its name.
Pilea plants are easy to grow and generally are not demanding. They like bright, indirect light but will not be happy if exposed to direct sunlight, as the direct rays will be too strong and will burn the delicate foliage. The plants are fast growing and soon become somewhat leggy. Pinching will help to prevent this, but as the plant ages, the lower leaves fall off and it becomes unattractive so will have a short life in the indoor landscape. The best practice is to constantly start new plants by using cuttings — three or four in a four-inch pot make a nice display. This way you always have a pot that is attractive and in its prime. Pileas are excellent plants to grow in a light garden as they like those light levels, so new plants can be started there.
They must be provided with a constant supply of moisture, so soil should not be allowed to dry out between waterings. The soil should be peat based and contain some humus; a soil mix for African violets suits pileas very well.
Although pilea plants often have finely textured foliage that looks delicate, they are actually quite tough and not at all high maintenance. With names like artillery fern and aluminum plant, these common names give an indication of how tough they are. Other than having a short pot life and having to start new plants frequently, pileas are easy-care plants — well worth adding to any indoor garden.