Tradescantia zebrina is one of 85 species in the Tradescantia genus and is a variegated trailing herbaceous perennial also known as spiderwort or Silver Inch plant. With fleshy stems and attractive slightly succulent leaves it has quickly become a staple for houseplant lovers but in warm climes it is not confined to the home and happily grows outside as groundcover. In fact it grows rather too well in some countries and has been labelled ‘invasive.’ Native to Central America, Mexico and Colombia, Tradescantia sprawls along rainforests, wetlands and over stony river banks.
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Luckily, the only concern for houseplant parents is do I place it in a hanging basket or shelf? Beautiful cascading evergreen foliage is periodically peppered with tiny flowers on the stem tips. This easy to grow houseplant is ideal for busy people as it requires little intervention so how do you get the growing conditions right?
Tradescantia zebrina like a lot of light to keep their foliage vibrant but make sure it is indirect bright light. You can turn pots regularly so leaves on all sides get an even amount of light but this can prove a little difficult once plants are trailing, Be sure to protect them from direct summer sunlight as this can scorch their leaves. Their characteristic metallic zebra stripes will fade if light levels are too low so this is a good indicator of if your plant is happy in its position. If in doubt - move it.
Make sure room temperature is around 12°C to 26°C (55°F to 80°F) and keep plants away from drafts. The humidity of our homes is normally fine for Tradescantia to thrive but they will benefit from a steamy kitchen or bathroom to recreate their native rainforest but if a humid environment is not available sit them on a tray of clay pebbles or gravel and mist regularly with Plantsmith Perfecting Houseplant Care Mist. Low humidity can cause crispy leaves.
Tradescantia is a fuss-free houseplant and can cope with most watering situations including a drought. Make sure your pot has good drainage holes and don’t leave drained water sitting stagnant in the saucer for long periods as this can cause root rot.
Tradescantia favours moist but not soggy soil so allow the compost to dry out between waterings. Pop your finger in the top inch of soil; if it is dry then water. Ideally water from the bottom so the roots can suck up the moisture. Tradescantia are not fans of wet crowns so if you water from the top, make sure you water the soil and not the foliage. Definitely the worst thing you can do to your houseplant is overwater it.
Rainwater is ideal for houseplants but if that is not an option then boil the kettle, pour the water into an open container and let it cool for 24 hours; this will allow time for the harmful chemicals like fluoride and chlorine to dissipated.
Tradescantia zebrina will happily grow in water or use a succulent soil mix. Make your own by mixing peat-free compost with, perlite and coarse sand; this will provide stability and aeration for roots, prevent soil becoming compact and prevent moisture retention allowing water to drain freely through it.
To keep your Tradescantia looking its best feed it every other time you water in the growing season; once every two weeks from spring to late autumn. Houseplants need nutrients to grow properly and undertake all their chemical reactions in solution so giving them food in solution saves them wasting energy breaking material down before they can use it. Houseplants rely on us to feed them so make sure you give them a formula which is specifically designed for houseplant’s needs.
Plantsmith Fortifying Houseplant Feed & Tonic is especially formulated to be the right balance and strength of nutrients for houseplants. It contains iron, potassium and magnesium which will encourage healthy foliage and promote flower growth, and kelp which stimulates the growth of cells.
Give the bottle a good shake and mix 5 ml (approx. 4 pumps) from the 500ml bottle or dilute one pipette from a 100ml bottle into a litre of tepid rainwater and apply.
Tradescantia zebrina have small pink flowers which appear periodically on the tips of stems, opening in the morning and closing at night. The three-petals have a white centre. When grown outside in the wild these flowers are particularly attractive to pollinators as they are high in pollen and nectar.
One of the main bug bears of Tradescantia zebrina is they are prone to getting leggy. These fast growers trail and inevitably leave long dangly stems at the base which are difficult to rectify so take regular cuttings and pot on rooted plants to start a new bushy plant.
Tradescantia zebrina is considered mildly toxic if ingested by children or pets to so hang them high and keep them out of reach. The sap can also be a skin irritant.
Tradescantia zebrina is not renowned for pest infestations but keep an eye out for aphids and fungus gnats on the soil surface. If you get a problem then limit the spread by removing the plant from other houseplants and remove any visible pests by hand.
Plants can be weakened by pest attacks so give them a boost with Plantsmith Protecting Bug Control Spray which is a 100% natural, vegan formula which not only helps deter pests but provides the plant with some much needed nutrients. Plantsmith Protecting Bug Control Spray is a blend of natural surfactants alongside iron chelate, magnesium and manganese chelate.
Tradescantia is very easy to propagate. Snip off stems about 10cm in length above a node and remove the lower leaves, this gives cuttings the best chance of rooting. Why do this? Plants release water via stomata on their leaves in a process called transpiration; removing half the leaves reduces the amount of water loss before the plant can grow roots. Simply pop cuttings in to a glass jar of water and wait. Roots will appear within a week. Place rooted cuttings in a pot of gritty peat-free compost and you have a new plant for free.
The genus Tradescantia were named after the famous 17th-century plant-hunter John Tradescant the Elder who was head gardener to Earls and Dukes and later Keeper of King Charles I gardens, silkworms and vines. He travelled the world collecting seeds, bulbs and plants and assembled his collection with his son John Tradescant the Younger in a large house in Lambeth, London known as ‘The Ark’ which came the first museum in England to open to the public: The Musaeum Tradescantianum. Tradescantia was introduced to European courts around 1662.
All photos © Debi Holland 2023