Tradescantia zebrina (formerly T. pendula) goes by the names spiderwort, inch plant, silver inch plant, zebra plant, wandering dude, and the name epithet wandering Jew. Many people are moving away from this last name because it has negative and offensive connotations.
Native to warm, humid areas in Mexico, Columbia, and Guatemala, it has naturalized in hospitable areas in Asia and South America.
Inch plant grows to about a foot tall, with long, trailing stems. The succulent stems hold ovate or lanceolate leaves in green and purple with two silver stripes that appear to sparkle in direct light. On the underside, the leaves are solid magenta. The leaf margins are lined with fine hairs that help the plant trap water.
While the plant is capable of forming inconspicuous purple flowers, this rarely happens indoors.
Some houseplants look best grown as a specimen, but spiderworts are also a nice option as undergrowth for taller plants such as elephant ears (Colocasia spp.) or canna lilies (Canna spp.).
- Genus: Tradescantia
- Species: zebrina
- Indigenous To: Columbia, Guatemala, and Mexico
- Sun Exposure: Morning sun with bright indirect light the rest of the day
- Soil Preference: Well-draining loam or bark and moss
- Soil pH: 5.0-6.0
- Toxicity: Non-toxic, sap can cause contact dermatitis
- Growing Zones: 9-11
Caring for Tradescantia zebrina:
As a plant indigenous to warm, tropical regions, T. zebrina requires temperatures between 60-80°F to thrive. It can tolerate lower temperatures down to 45°F, but you run the risk of cold damage or stunting the plant. It can also tolerate warmer temperatures, up to 95°F, for brief periods.
These plants also do best in moderate to high humidity. Relative humidity between 40-90% is ideal. However, the plant will do fine in lower humidity, but it might develop brown leaf tips. If you’d like to increase the humidity around the plant, group it with other houseplants that need high humidity or use a humidifier in the room.
If you’d prefer not to use a humidifier, grow the plant in a bathroom or near a kitchen sink, which tends to have higher humidity than the rest of the home.
Some people opt to grow inch plants in terrariums or vivariums to give them the humidity they need and to contain their exuberant nature. They’re attractive when planted with strappy-leafed plants such as some bromeliads or birds nest ferns (Aslenium nidus) to create a contrast.
Wandering dudes can tolerate a range of light exposure. They can tolerate direct morning sun and will typically show better color with more light. However, they shouldn’t be exposed to harsh afternoon sun, or the leaves will become bleached and burned.
Without enough light, the leaves lose their distinct coloring and appear pale. The older, lower leaves will drop from the plant as well.
Try to aim for some direct sun in the morning with bright, indirect light in the afternoon. An east-facing window would be perfect. A west-facing or south-facing window covered in sheer curtains would also work. Place the plant within a few feet of the window.
Soil and Container
T. zebrina doesn’t need anything special when it comes to potting soil. Any water-retentive, well-draining potting soil fits the bill. Most of the mixes that you find on the market will work fine. Look for something with a combination of loam, moss, and perlite or vermiculite.
These plants aren’t fussy about container sizing, but the pot must have drainage.
Inch plants like moist soil but won’t tolerate standing water. Allow the soil to dry out between watering. Overeating leads to root rot.
Too little water results in leaves that turn brown and dry up. These may cling to the stem or fall.
If you don’t have a moisture meter that will indicate when the soil has become dry, you can use your finger as an indicator. Stick it into the soil up to your second knuckle. If it feels dry all the way to your second knuckle, add water. If you feel any moisture from the tip of your finger to your second knuckle, hold off.
When you water, be sure to empty any catchment container after about 30 minutes to reduce the risk of root rot.
There isn’t any need to feed your inch plants if you re-pot regularly. However, if the growth seems to be slow or stunted and there aren’t any pest or disease symptoms, feed the plant with a mild, balanced fertilizer.
Look for a water-soluble fertilizer with an NPK of 2-2-2 or 3-3-3. Feed the soil, not the leaves, once in the spring and again in the summer.
Overfeeding will cause the plant to lose its distinct coloring. With overfeeding, the leaves will look mostly green, with little silver or purple. Don’t feed unless you’re certain it’s necessary.
Pinch the plant regularly if you want to create bushier growth. Use a clean pair of scissors or clippers and trim back to a leaf node. You should also trim off leggy growth or any stems that are broken or discolored.
T. zebrina grows quickly and can become out of control before you realize what’s happening. If the plant outgrows its pot with roots circling the container, or growing out of the soil or drainage hole, increase to the next size up.
If you opt to move the plant outdoors in the summer, harden it off for a few weeks in order to gradually expose it to the harsher outdoor conditions.
Every few years, remove the plant from its container and replace all of the potting soil. This is necessary for several reasons. First, old soil tends to compact, contributing to root rot. Old soil also becomes hydrophobic over time, which means that it repels water. This makes it more difficult for the water to reach the roots rather than feeding straight out of the drainage holes.
Finally, old soil becomes depleted of nutrients and builds up with minerals if you use hard water.
When working with this plant, note that the mucilaginous sap can be irritating to the skin in some people. If you are prone to contact dermatitis, wear gloves when handling your spiderworts. The stems also break easily, so use caution not to snap them unintentionally.
Best Species and Cultivars
The world of the Tradescantia genus is a bit chaotic in terms of botanic nomenclature. Plants are constantly being mislabeled on the market. Many plants are labeled as zebrina cultivars when they actually belong to the chrysophylla, fluminensis, or albiflora species. That’s understandable since all of these species look similar to each other.
Here are a few of the true zebrina cultivars you can find on the market.
‘Burgundy’ has less green and more burgundy on the upper side of the leaves than the species.
Slightly more subdued than the species, ‘Green Ghost’ lacks almost any purple on the top of the leaves and is primarily silver and green.
Also known as ‘Purpusii,’ this cultivar has wider silver stripes and less purple than the species.
Each node segment of the stem can produce an entirely new plant. This characteristic has led to the species becoming invasive in warm regions where it grows outdoors. As a houseplant, it’s a good thing because it means that we can readily reproduce it.
Cuttings can be propagated in soil or water. Look for a healthy stem and cut a section away that contains at least one leaf node. Place the cut end in water or in potting soil in a small container with good soil drainage.
Place the cutting in an area with bright but indirect light. Any direct light could burn the cuttings and should be avoided.
In a few weeks, new roots should develop. If you’re growing in water, you will be able to see the roots. Once they’re an inch long, you can plant the cutting into soil. Be sure to keep the soil moist as the cutting establishes itself. Water-grown cuttings take some time to adapt to soil and need extra moisture during the transition.
If you’re growing in soil, wait for new growth or gently tug the cutting to see if it resists. Once you have roots, you can either move the cutting into a larger pot or allow it to grow in the existing pot until it outgrows it.
In either case, once the plant has become established after a few months, you can move it into a sunnier growing spot and water less often.
Common Problems, Pests, and Diseases
This tough plant is rarely bothered by pests or diseases, particularly when you grow it indoors. Rarely, aphids (part of the superfamily Aphidoidea) will attack, causing yellow stippling or yellowing leaves. Examine your plant closely on the stem and underside of the leaves for these tiny tick relatives, which use their tiny sucking mouthparts to feed on the plant.
Isolate the plant while you treat it. Place the plant in a tub or sink and spray it with a blast of lukewarm water to displace the insects. You’ll need to repeat this every week for a month or so, but it’s a reliable method for eliminating these pests.
While they aren’t prone to disease problems, overwatering will smother the roots, depriving them of oxygen. If you consistently overwater, the plant will begin to wilt and turn brown. To remedy this physiological problem, remove the plant from its container and remove all the sodden soil.
Replace it with fresh potting soil after cleaning out the pot.
Watch out for root rot. This isn’t a disease but rather a physiological condition where the roots become deprived of oxygen because they’re drowning in too much water. Plants will root rot will look wilted and might have brown, mushy leaves.
If you notice these symptoms, dig down and look at the roots. If they’re brown or black and soft, remove the plant from the potting soil and dispose of the soil. Then, wash out the container, making sure the drainage hole isn’t clogged, and repot the plant with fresh soil. Reduce your watering and be sure only to water when the soil has dried out.