Purple Heart

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Purple Heart, Tradescantia pallida

Family: Commelinaceae

Also known as Purple Queen, Purpurea, Purple Trandescantia, Purple Secretia, or Wandering Jew

(To those with whom I served, worked and wearied in Viet Nam and Iraq, who incurred injuries or gave that final great measure of life during the course of those hostilities, and who – so very correctly – were awarded the military award of this plant’s name, I dedicate this writing.)

As so often is the case, there is a degree of controversy by some botanists as to this plant’s correct scientific name.  Some refer to it as Setcreasea purpurea or Setcreasea pallida.   But, more and more, Tradescantia pallida seems to be the most accepted.

There is no lack of plants purported to have beautiful purple foliage.  But this long-jointed, sprawling, rapid growing, evergreen, perennial groundcover, of the Dayflower Family, is really and truly purple!  Originating in Eastern Mexico – reaching England around 1600 – its Latin name is derived via an honor bestowed upon the famous naturalist, John Tradescant.    

Attractive, hardy and well rooted (like my Patty) this tenacious, trailing, perennial plant seems to best like a rich moist soil.  It seems to show its richest colors – and generally grows most vigorously – in full sun.  But, if possible, it would prefer a break from such during the hottest midday.  It does like ample, regular watering but will forgive you if you’re occasionally a bit late with that chore, as it is surprisingly drought tolerant!   

The bad news is that the stems are delicate and easily break off.  However, the good news is that these easily re-root!  Trimming or pinching back the shoot tips will promote bushier plants providing a thicker ground cover.  It is low growing – not much more than a foot or so high – and when grown outdoors, insects are seldom a problem.

It is not a big fan nor advocate of the cold.  Thus, in our environs the Purple Heart is an excellent landscaping plant, can be grown indoors, used in hanging baskets or planted as a container plant (but appreciates regular fertilization in this mode).  It blooms constantly during warm weather.

On its succulent stems are nice looking, spear shaped leaves of about one inch (2.5 cm) wide and three to five inches (7.6 to 12.7 cm) long.  (Keep in mind the fragility of its stems which break off rather easily if even slightly bumped.)  As the deep royal – eggplant colored – purple foliage matures, they become suffused with a faint dusty turquoise-gunmetal undertone.

The undersides of the lanceolate leaves are more vivid in a violet shade, leaning towards pink, where the petioles encircle the stem.  Small, pale white, pink or purple, three-petal flowers emerge from boat-shaped bracts at the stem tips, and bloom only one day.  To best enjoy them, go to your garden early in the morning to see these delicate little flowers.  That is the only time that they are open.

Before proceeding further, a word of warning to the wise. . . and even the not so wise!  This attractive plant can be quite invasive and exceedingly persistent in its homesteading.  In numerous areas in the Southern United States and Australia it is labeled as an invasive species. 

A note posted on the “Dave’s Garden” web site described it thusly, “It will easily take over areas and grow out of hand. Getting rid of it in an area can be difficult as you have to clean out all of the roots… and there are a lot.”  This, for some, is its foremost shortcoming.

If you’d like to give a friend a start from your plant or transplant some of yours elsewhere, that’s easy with this tough, but attractive, plant.  Using a little dirt, just cover part of a stem with an attached leaf node and it will root.  Keep the soil moist until it is growing, healthy and strong.

I’ve heard of contact dermatitis supposedly occurring for some during maintenance pruning when the cut leaf and stem sap touches and dries on bare skin – but it’s never bothered me.  On the positive side, I’ve read (but can not confirm) that through a process known as phytoremediation, Tradescantia pallida “has been judged exceptionally effective at improving indoor air quality by filtering out volatile organic compounds, a class of common pollutants and respiratory irritants.”

If you come to like this plant, some of Purple Heart’s close Spiderwort kin are the green Wandering Jew (Tradescantia fluminensis) and the purple Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrine).

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Potentially quite invasive, plant it in a location where you can control where it goes as we have on our Transition Terrace.

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The Purple Heart is a attractive, tenacious, trailing, evergreen, perennial plant.

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The small, pretty flowers appear only in the mornings and then for only one day.