Tradescantia zebrina: Wandering jew

Family: Commelinaceae
Common name: Wandering jew, Inch plant

There are very few garden plants with such beautiful leaf colors, purple with silver lines that look their best in bright sunlight. Wandering jew plants belong to a larger group called Tradescantia or spiderworts which includes Tradescantia fluminensis and Tradescantia spathaceae, all of them grown for their beautiful hanging foliage.

These plants only grow to a height of 20-30 cms with long trailing stems that grow horizontally to the ground. They make good hanging plants, lovely trailing stems falling around the edges of hanging pots or baskets. Wandering jew plants don’t do well as indoor plants since their leaves become bleached and drained of color in low sunlight.

These plants need good moisture, but too much water can lead to stem and root rot. They are also called inch plants because there’s approximately one-inch distance between stem nodes. Wandering jew plant leaves are primarily purple or green with 2 long stripes of silver running along the center of the leaves.

These leaves are rounded at the base without any stalk, and pointy towards the tip. They need bright sunlight and well-drained soil, the colors on the leaves having greater contrast when the plants are in direct sunlight. The lower surface of the leaves is beautifully purple in color.

These plants also produce small flowers that are enclosed in 2 large bracts exactly like those of Boatlily or Tradescantia spathacea. Stamens are prominently visible. These flowers later form capsule-like fruits with brown seeds inside.

Wandering jew plants can become leggy and scraggly after a while. So it’s best to prune the plants to keep them bushy and also replant them occasionally. These plants only live for a year or two under normal circumstances. So it’s best to create new plants once the parent plant loses its shape and color.

The stem is capable of rooting at the nodes, especially in water. Just put a few stem pieces in water and wait for 8-10 days for the roots to show. Once the roots grow out, they can be replanted in moist, well-drained soil with some compost or fertilizers mixed in.

Though they are native to Mexico and Central America, they are now seen all over the world in home gardens and nurseries. Wandering jew plants can make good ground covers, filling in large areas very quickly with their long stems. Common cultivars are Purpusii and Quadricolor both characterized by variations in foliage color.

The plant is slightly toxic to humans and pets, and can cause skin irritation on prolonged contact, due to a colorless sap that oozes out when the stem is cut. They are considered invasive plants in many parts of the world, since even small pieces of stem that fall on the ground can form new plants. But they can be easily controlled by hand plucking.

Propagation is through seeds and stem cuttings.