Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on September 10, 1998. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Spiderwort, Purple Heart Are Landscape Favorites
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Few people recognize the name, Tradescantia, but most people recognize the specific plant names Wandering Jew,.Moses-in-the-Cradle, Three-Men-in-the-Boat, Moses-in-the-Bulrushes, Spiderwort and Purple Heart, which are all Tradescantia.
Every spring we see the gorgeous blue Spiderwort flowers growing along our roadsides and in our gardens. While some find the roadside flower slightly invasive, others say they are great. Many don't realize that this plant is very closely related to the Wandering Jew.
The native Spiderworts are known as Tradescantia virginia and Tradescantia occidentalis. Most have blue flowers, but there are varieties available with white, purple, rose, red and even double flowers.
The Wandering Jew name really refers to Tradescantia flumensis and Tradescantia zebrina. The name zebrina gives a hint that it does have stripes, but so do some cultivars of the Tradescantia flumensis. Both are native to Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.
This summer my wife, Jan, made hanging baskets with some of the solar coleus growing on top or in the middle, with Wandering Jew hanging down all around. They have really made a show all season.
The Moses-in-the-Cradle, Three-Men-in-the-Boat and Moses-in-the-Bulrushes is known botanically as Tradescantia spathacea. It gets its name from the flowers clumped in a purple boat or cradle-shaped bract.
These are really succulent leaves, and the plants are well suited to hanging baskets, window boxes and anywhere else that it can be allowed to cascade. These are not very cold hardy and will have to be protected during the winter.
Purple Heart, or Tradescantia pallida, is the one that has all the landscapers and horticulturists raving. A lot of catalogues, books and Internet information still refer to it by the name Setcreasea pallida with the common name setcreasea.
A native of Eastern Mexico, this deep-purple, vining plant is very drought tolerant and ideal for landscapes. The color is outstanding when grown with plants like the New Gold lantana. The entrance to Northpark Mall in Ridgeland has some striking plantings with rocks and lantanas.
Another beautiful combination is to plant it with the coral-colored Salvia coccinea or pink verbenas. Another choice combination is with ornamental grasses like Fountain or Muhly grass.
The Purple Heart is perennial in zones 8 and 9 but is still worth planting in zone 7 as an annual. There are many that will say that it dies back in zone 7 but returns faithfully each year with a layer of mulch. Purple Heart prefers a well-drained, organic-rich bed, but is being touted as the plant that will grow just about anywhere it doesn't get wet feet. In fact, root rot is its No. 1 enemy which only occurs in soggy soils.
Since this is a sprawling type plant, we can increase its bushiness by pinching or cutting back the terminal ends of the plant. Purple Heart and Wandering Jew are easy to propagate by stem cuttings. Just stick one in the soil where you need a new plant or two, and keep it moist until roots develop. Then cut back on the water. If you will try Purple Heart you will get hooked like the rest of us, I promise.