Oyster Plant

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Oyster Plant, Tradescantia spathacea or pallida ‘Purpurea’, Rhoea spathacea, or Rhoea discolor

Family: Commelinaceae

Also known as:  Moses-in-the-Boat, Moses-in-the-Cradle, Moses-in-the-Basket, Moses-in-the-Bullrushes, Boatlily or – the ever popular – Purple-Leafed Spiderwort

(This plant should not be confused with Acanthus molli, or Acanthus spinosus – Bear’s Breeches – or the Scolymus hispanicus – Spanish Oyster Plant – or with the four feet tall, grass-like Tragopogon porrifolius – Salsify – that is a member of the Asteraceae (sunflower) family and has an edible root with the flavor of oysters.  Each of these is sometimes called Oyster Plant as well.  And, yes, I agree, it’s, often, all quite confusing!)

Now, let’s be honest.  Often we find ourselves needing a solid, stable, “comfortable and fun to be around – as well as always ‘there for us’ plant”- just as my Patty is for me.  Such is the Oyster Plant. . . . well, without the “Honey Do” list!

In Tropical Ornamentals, Whistler describes the Oyster Plant as being “Distinguishable by the coarse, clump-forming, herbaceous habit, narrowly lanceolate – (No, that is not a prince in King Arthur’s court) – leaves purple on the lower surface and lacking a midrib”.  This old country bumpkin gardener, might say that they are “no nonsense, good looking, low maintenance, fast spreading, easy to grow, ground cover”.  (But then, he’s more knowledgeable then the mere mortal likes of me!)

In a bit more simplified form of description, each plant has a dozen (more or less), erect, broad, sword-shaped leaves that are a dark green on the top and a striking, deep purple underneath.  Its flowers are, perhaps, more interesting than outright attractive.  They’re comprised of three, small, white papery petals all crowded together in purple, boat-shaped bracts (hence the one name – Moses-in-the-Boat) down among the leaves.

Suffice it to say from the outset, they are comfortable in sun or shade; almost seem to thrive on abuse; and, are also extremely functional having an array of practical – and attractive – applications.

Drench them in water or forget to do so for protracted periods – this stalwart plant generally doesn’t seem to mind.  An intriguing, strong spirited character, regardless of our lack of attention, it just goes on about doing its job.  It’s a fast grower and makes a great ground cover, potted plant for the terrace or tropical flower bed border/edging plant and looks good planted around rocks or boulders.

The short version of it is that (those with a brown thumb take note) the Oyster Plant is very hardy and quite easy to grow in that it propagates, on its own, via its roots or wind blown seeds or, by us, through cuttings.

It is native to the West Indies, Mexico and Guatemala.  In this latter locale coloring extract is taken from its all purple leaves for use in cosmetics.  Warren, in his book Tropical Plants for Home and Garden, warns that “the entire plant is poisonous”.  So, simply, don’t eat ‘em!

This attractive succulent can grow up to two feet (.61 meter).  There are varieties that are solid green or with variegated foliage of striped red and yellowish-green.  Here in Ola Brisa Gardens we also have its cousins, Purple Heart (T. pallida), Wandering Jew (T. zebrina) and a ‘dwarf variegata’ variety.  Regarding this latter one, I read on-line that “With its subtly attractive texture and color (the) dwarf oyster has a neat appearance in a dense bed and works well in formal or casual landscapes.”  That’s a pretty correct assessment.

There are those who feel that the Oyster Plant is an invasive nuisance.   In fact, Llamas advises, in Tropical Flowering Plants, that they may “infest flower beds, container plants, palm trunks, gutters and roof tiles”.  Granted, they are tough growing and propagate without attention or care in unattended or abandoned areas quite well.  But I tend to think that they are merely imbued with a hardy, pioneer spirit like my great-grandparents – and, as a result, l like ‘em a lot!

As to preferences in homesteads, they prefer alkaline or slight to moderately salty, well-draining soils.

Beyond that, another negative aspect is the claim, by some gardeners, that it causes a rash/irritation on both humans and pets.  I have not so noted in my dealings with them, but it might be good information to bear in mind.

Here in Mexico, I’ve heard that this plant is used to cure wounds or infections and that the leaf “juice” can be used to disinfect.

Bottom line: A hardy, good looking plant of wide application!

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Alternative names include Oyster Plants, Moses-in-the-Cradle, Moses-in-the-Basket, Moses-in-the-Bullrushes and Boatlily.

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Upon peering closely, its small – rather attractive – inflorescences can be see once the bract opens a bit.

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Ours at Ola Brisa Gardens, on the Street Terrace, grow behind color complementing Rose Moss.