Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
My mother had a lot of houseplants. As a child, when I asked her what the various plants were called, very often she would say something crazy like “Moses in the Cradle”. As a child, I accepted it. As an adult, I thought that maybe she had been pulling my leg. Turns out, she wasn’t.
What is Moses in the Cradle?
Moses in the cradle (Tradescantia spathacea) is a beautiful tropical plant that is native to Central America. It was discovered by Europeans in 1788. Since then, it has become naturalized in tropical areas of the US such as Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Hawaii. It is not considered invasive because although it is not native to those areas, it has not spread enough to actually displace the native plants. An invasive plant is a non-native plant that grows so aggressively that it replaces the surrounding native plants.
What makes Moses in the cradle especially attractive is its foliage. The leaves are dark shiny green on top and shiny purple on the underside. They grow in a rosette. Each leaf is 3 inches wide and 12 inches long.
There are two cultivars that offer more color in the leaves. Variegata, also called Tricolor, has leaves that are striped with white and pink. Vittata has yellow stripes on the leaves.
The white flowers are barely noticeable. They are tiny and some say resemble a baby. They grow at the base of the rosette in bracts which some liken to a cradle giving it its name Moses in the cradle. Alternatively, the bracts also resemble boats, giving the plant its other nickname, Boat Lily.
Is Moses in the Cradle Poisonous?
Always wear gloves when handling this plant. It can cause contact dermatitis which is a rash on your skin. Do not eat this plant. The sap is poisonous. It will irritate your lips, tongue and throat as well as cause pain in your mouth and stomach.
How to Grow Moses in the Cradle Outdoors
Moses in the cradle is hardy in zones 9 – 12 where it can be grown outside. It is often grown in hanging baskets or used as a border plant. Because it spreads so readily, it also makes a good ground cover.
Plant it in an area that is partly shady, only receiving 2 or 3 hours of direct sunlight each day. It prefers well-drained or even rocky soil. It is a drought tolerant plant so if you forget to water, it’s okay. When you do water, allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Too much water can cause root rot.
When grown outdoors, this plant does not require fertilizer. If you like, you can feed it once a year in the spring with a balanced fertilizer such 10-10-10.
How to Grow Moses in the Cradle Indoors
Gardeners in zones colder than 9, grow this lovely plant as a houseplant using a well-drained potting soil. Indoors, you can keep this plant in a sunny room. If you wish to move it outdoors during the summer, make sure it is in partial shade with only 2 or 3 hours of direct sunlight each day. You can move your plant outdoors in the spring when nighttime temperatures are consistently above 60⁰F. Bring it back indoors in the fall when nighttime temperatures fall to 60⁰F.
This is a drought tolerant plant so allow it to dry out slightly between waterings. The top 1 – 2 inches of soil should be dry before you water it again. You will need to fertilize more often than if you grew this outdoors because when it is in a container, each time you water, nutrients are leached out of the soil. Plan on fertilizing monthly during the spring and summer using a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10. You should stop fertilizing in the fall and winter when the plant is resting.
How to Divide Moses in the Cradle
Moses in the cradle reproduces both by seed and offsets. Seed is difficult to come by and since most of us grow ours indoors, the flowers will not be pollinated so no seeds will be produced by our plants.
Fortunately, this plant has another way to reproduce: offsets. Offsets are basically clones of the parent plant that develop around the perimeter of the parent plant. Each offset is capable of growing into a completely separate plant.
To divide your plant, carefully remove it from its pot. Using a sharp knife, cut the offsets that have their own roots from the parent plant. Replant the parent plant into its pot with fresh soil and then replant your offsets into their own pots.
© 2020 Caren White
Danny from India on July 29, 2020:
Nice article Caren. Got to know more about Moses in the Cradle plant.