Wandering Jew

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Wandering Jew, Tradescantia zebrina 

Family: Arecacea

Also known as: Purple Wandering Jew, Inch Plant, Cockroach Grass or Creeping Jenny

This great plant – thought to be a Mexican native – is quite versatile. They can be enjoyed in a hanging basket, window boxes, planted around the base of larger specimens, allowed to cascade down low walls or used as dramatic and efficient, erosion-controlling, ground cover.

(In fact, in that last consideration, I recently undertook a major – and very fun – landscaping project on an exceptionally steep hill dropping from high on a ridge-line with a spectacular bay vista to waves crashing on huge, craggy rocks far below. To tie several score plant varieties together and ensure we effectively thwarted erosion, several hundred of these plants were employed. I gotta’ admit. It’s stunningly beautiful!)

“But wait, before going further, why this name?” Well, “Wandering” is what no little part of Jewish history has been all about. Remember Moses and that long desert trek? Hence, this plant – like the Jewish people – has a great ability to adapt to varied environments and conditions!

There are several cultivars of the Tradescantia zebrina including one of my favorites, ‘Perpusii’ which has wine colored leaves. Another cultivar, ‘Quadricolor’, has green, white, and pink stripes on the upper sides of its leaves and may be a hybrid between T. zebrina and T. fluminensis. Virtually all look great, alone or planted with its – equally easy to grow and maintain – kin, the Oyster Plant, T.a spathacea (also called Moses in the Boat) and Purple Heart, T. pallida.

The ovate-oblong, fleshy leaves of the Wandering Jew are a dark green with two silvery-white stripes on top and a rather dramatic purple coloration underneath. They are ¾” to three inches (two to seven centimeters) long. Its small, pink three-parted flowers – like the T. spathacea – are enclosed in boat-shaped bracts that are 3/8 inch to 1 5/8 inch long. These flowers are a delightful, year around occurrence but prefer to show themselves only in the cool of the morning.

Spreading rapidly by rooting stems, the Wandering Jew requires sun to best develop its colors – though too much of old Sol can cause the leaves to become a bit faded. Moist, well-draining soil is definitely its preferred growing medium. It can be as much as a foot (30 ½ cm) thick or, as one writer described it, a “succulent-stemmed plant that creeps and sprawls and trails all over itself to make a dense groundcover”.

Its only down side consists of weak stems that easily break off. But merely put these back in the soil and voilà, soon you will have another healthy plant!

The Wandering Jew prefers rich organic soil and will be appreciative if you mulch it – it need not be kosher! But even under the most ideal and attention giving conditions, potted ones tend to get leggy with age.

This is no problem when grown as a ground cover as new branches cover the bare stems. However, container plants gradually become a “mass of ugly straggling stems” with only little bunches of leaves at their tips. To make this worse, when one cuts them back, they don’t promptly produce bushy fresh growth. A peer correctly groused that, “Those bare stems take a long time for new shoots to cover their nakedness.” But, the solution ain’t that difficult! Just grow new plants from cuttings and then start anew every once in a while. . . Problem solved.

The Wandering Jew enjoys occasional light feeding which encourages its growth and general health. It is seldom afflicted by pests or diseases. However, it is susceptible to an aphid-transmitted virus that can cause stunting and malformed leaves.

How might you best propagate this plant? It rarely reproduces from seed. But cuttings readily root in soil, sand, or water as long as each piece of stem includes at least one node. After keeping them well watered for a week or so, set them into mulched soil. In a shady area, you’ll quickly have a luscious new ground cover.

This guy is also very easy to transplant. Merely plant the root-ball in good soil, spread out the trailing stems and then partially cover them with organic mulch.

I have read that Wandering Jew sap can causes a skin irritation in humans and that dogs kept in yards covered with wandering Jew have developed rashes, but have never experienced any of these problems myself.

If seeking a low maintenance, attractive, multi-use plant, the Wandering Jew is for you!

PS Wandering Jew 122

Now that’s what I call a cute, petite flower!

Andy Wandering Jew DSC_4392

Some old guy – woops, that would be me – shows the top underside of the Wandering Jew leaves.

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The ovate-oblong, fleshy leaves of the Wandering Jew are a dark green with two silvery-white stripes on top and a rather dramatic purple coloration underneath.