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How to Grow Wandering Jew (Spiderwort)

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Tradescantia zebrina has striped leaves with purple undersides.

Tradescantia zebrina has striped leaves with purple undersides.

My apologies for the offensive plant name, but traditional names for plants were assigned in less enlightened times and unfortunately some of them have stuck.

What is Wandering Jew?

Wandering Jew (Tradescantia spp.) is a genus of tropical vines native to Central America and the Caribbean. They are a member of the spiderwort family. Because they are tropical plants, North American gardeners usually grow them as houseplants. The most popular species are T. pallida which has purple leaves and T. zebrina which has leaves that are striped silver and green on the top and a solid purple on the undersides. Both have 3 petalled flowers that are characteristic of the spiderwort family.

The common name of the plant, wandering Jew, refers to a myth from medieval times about a Jewish man who taunted Christ on his way to the Cross. His punishment for his taunts is to wander the earth until the Second Coming. The plants of the same name also “wander”, sprawling across the soil when grown in the ground or draping from hanging baskets.

Wandering Jew can grow 6 to 9 inches tall and spread 12 to 24 inches. It grows quickly. So quickly that when grown in the soil as a groundcover, it spreads aggressively and has been classed as an invasive species in South Africa and the Galapagos Islands. Another good reason to grow this plant in a pot!

The flowers are small and have three petals. They can be white, pink or purple. There is no particular bloom time. The flowers appear throughout the year.

Tradescantia pallida has solid purple leaves.

Tradescantia pallida has solid purple leaves.

How to Grow Wandering Jew

Wandering Jew is hardy in zones 9 – 12 so most of us grow it as a houseplant. Indoors, it likes bright but indirect sun. Too much sun and the leaves will scorch. Too little sun and the color on the leaves fades. I grow mine in a north facing window with indirect afternoon sun.

The plant does best in well-drained soil. You can use regular potting soil as long as you don’t allow the soil to get soggy. Adding some perlite or pumice to improve drainage will help. Avoid using sand because sand will fill up the minute spaces in the soil and prevent drainage.

Water your plant when the top of the soil appears dry. Water it enough so that water comes out of the drainage hole. Immediately empty the saucer. Do not allow your plant to sit in water. This will lead to root rot and the death of the plant.

Fertilizing houseplants is important because every time you water, the water washes nutrients out of the soil. Wandering Jew doesn’t require a lot of fertilizer. Use a water soluble fertilizer formulated for houseplants diluted to half strength every two months to keep your plant healthy.

The flowers of Wandering Jew have three petals which is characteristic of the spiderwort family.

The flowers of Wandering Jew have three petals which is characteristic of the spiderwort family.

How to Grow Wandering Jew From Cuttings

Wandering Jew is propagated from cuttings. If you look closely at the stems of your plant, you will see that it grows in segments with nodules where the leaves grow between the segments. When grown in the ground, roots will grow out of these nodules. You can take advantage of this to make cuttings and root new plants.

Choose a healthy stem and make a 4 – 6 inch cutting at one of the nodules. Strip off the leaves from the bottom half of you cutting and gently press it into a container of pre-moistened soil. I always water before I plant my cuttings because I have discovered that if I water afterwards, both the soil and the cuttings float away. You can use a rooting hormone if you like, but these plants grow roots so readily that it is not necessary if you don’t have any. If you want your container to appear fuller, you can root more than one cutting at a time as long as they are not overlapping each other.

Place a plastic bag over the pot to create a mini greenhouse. This will create a humid atmosphere as well as keep the soil moist while your cutting is growing new roots. Place the container in a window with bright indirect light. New roots should start growing in about a month. You will know that your cutting has roots when you see it start to grow new leaves. Plants that don’t have roots can’t grow new leaves.

Truthfully, you don't have to go to all that trouble. One of my foster cats attacked my plant, tearing it to pieces. I just took the pieces, broke them off at the nodule, removed the bottoms leaves and stuck them back in the pot in which I had put fresh soil. They took root with no trouble.

© 2020 Caren White