Tradescantia spathacea is a stunning houseplant that’ll add a splash of purple to any corner. Popular among indoor gardeners, it’s also an extremely good choice for beginners.
In this guide, our gardening gurus will explain all you need to know about caring for and growing Tradescantia spathacea.
What Is Tradescantia Spathacea?
Tradescantia spathacea, also known as boat lily, oyster plant, or Moses-in-the-cradle, is a flowering plant from the Tradescantia genus. Native to Guatemala, Belize, and Southern Mexico, it is widely used in indoor gardening and outdoor landscaping due to its showy, variegated foliage. The dark green leaves have the iconic purple underside common in ornamental Tradescantias and are often streaked with lashes of white, pink, or magenta.
Unlike most indoor Tradescantia plants, Moses-in-the-cradle is not a vine. This plant has a vertical growth habit, compact shape, and will typically grow one foot (30 cm) tall and two feet (60 cm) wide. If you’re looking for something smaller, the Tradescantia spathacea ‘Dwarf’ cultivar will only grow to a maximum height and width of one foot.
In the past, this plant was known under the name of Rhoeo Spatachea. Nowadays, nurseries and garden centers sell it under several names, such as Tradescantia spathacea rhoeo, Tradescantia spathacea tricolor, or Tradescantia spathacea variegata.
– Why Is It Called Moses-in-the-Cradle?
Tradescantia spathacea has several common names, all of them tied to the shape of its inflorescence. The plant will produce several small, white flowers nested between a type of modified leaves called bracts. To the keen eye, these bracts look like a boat and even the shell of an oyster. Or, if you have an active imagination, the inflorescence looks like baby Moses floating in a boat down the river Nile to escape the wrath of the Pharaoh.
– Is Tradescantia Spathacea Toxic?
Tradescantia spathacea is not mentioned on the ASPCA list of plants that are toxic to pets. However, other Tradescantia species are listed as being toxic to cats, dogs, and horses. Our recommendation is to stay on the safe side and keep this plant away from pets and kids.
Tradescantia Spathacea Care Guide
– Light Requirements
Tradescantia spathacea prefers growing in bright indirect light. This plant can tolerate a wide range of light conditions, but too much or too little sun can affect its growth. Partial shade will result in leggy stems and faded colors, and the leaves may even revert to their natural green color. On the other hand, too much sun will scorch the foliage.
We recommend keeping it in a room with eastern or western exposure, where it can receive a couple of hours of direct sunlight in the morning or evening. This will maintain its vivid colors and compact shape.
– Temperature Requirements
Tradescantia spathacea can be grown in temperatures ranging from 64 to 80 F (18 to 27 C). Its growth can become stunted if exposed to temperatures below 55 F (13 C), and the plant will suffer permanent damage in freezing conditions. To keep it happy, make sure that it’s not exposed to any drafts and sudden changes in temperatures.
Thinking of Growing Tradescantia Spathacea Outdoors? Read This First.
If you plan to grow Moses-in-the-cradle in your garden, keep in mind that plants belonging to the Tradescantia genus can be very weedy, and in some cases, invasive. These plants are remarkably adaptable and can easily self-propagate from broken stems.
Tradescantia spathacea has naturalized in Florida and Louisiana, and although its impact on the local ecosystem is still being studied, it is listed as a Category II invasive exotic species.
You can grow Tradescantia spathacea outdoors if you live in USDA zones 9 to 12. Pick a part of your garden that receives plenty of sun in the morning but is sheltered from the intense midday sun. To prevent the unwanted spread of this plant, our recommendation is to grow it in containers rather than garden beds.
– Water Requirements
Keep the soil of your Tradescantia spathacea moist but not soaked. As a rule of thumb, we recommend testing the soil with your finger before watering the plant. If the top inch feels dry to the touch, use the soak-and-drain method for watering it. In summer, you can water it once a week, then reduce the watering frequency to once every 10 – 14 days in winter.
– Humidity Requirements
Tradescantia spathacea is not too pretentious when it comes to humidity. The average home humidity level should be more than enough for this plant. However, if you notice that the tips of the leaves are becoming brown and crispy, you can give it a humidity boost by placing it on top of a pebble tray.
– Soil Requirements
Plant your Tradescantia spathacea in a soil mix that is loose, porous, and well-draining. Its roots are thin and delicate, and they can be very susceptible to root rot if the soil stays constantly wet. We recommend using a mix of two parts universal potting soil and one part perlite. As an alternative, combining equal parts universal potting mix, cactus soil, and perlite or vermiculite also works.
– Fertilizer Requirements
Tradescantia spathacea is not a heavy feeder. Once a month, throughout spring and summer, you can apply a liquid fertilizer solution to help the plant develop new growth. A balanced, universal fertilizer with a nutrient ratio of 6-6-6, diluted to half the strength, should do the trick. You don’t have to give the plant any additional fertilizers from mid-autumn until the end of winter.
– Pruning and Maintenance
Compared to other Tradescantia species, Moses-in-the-cradle requires very little pruning. On occasion, you will need to trim some of the older, wilted leaves from the bottom of the stem. You can also prune the top of the plant if you want to propagate it. Always use a sharp, sterilized blade for pruning your plant to prevent spreading pathogens from one plant to another.
– Repotting Tradescantia Spathacea
Tradescantia spathacea has a slow growth rate and can take up to five years to reach its full size. This means that you will only need to repot it once every two to three years. If you notice that the roots are starting to come out of the drainage holes, simply repot the plant to a container that’s one size larger than the previous one.
Tradescantia Spathacea Propagation Guide
You can propagate the Moses-in-the-cradle plant using any of these three methods: stem cuttings, plant division, and seeds. All three methods are very beginner-friendly, and we recommend using each in spring. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
– Tradescantia Spathacea Stem Propagation
This is one of the easiest methods for propagating Moses-in-the-cradle. Use a sharp, sterilized blade and cut the stem in between the growth nodes. You can either root the cuttings in water or plant them in a well-draining soil mix. There’s no need to use rooting hormone, as the cuttings will develop roots in a couple of weeks.
– Propagating Tradescantia Spathacea Through Plant Division
We recommend using this method at the same time as repotting your Moses-in-the-cradle plant, to avoid disturbing the roots too much. Simply take the plant out of the pot, and remove as much soil as you can. Use your fingers to gently divide the main plant into several sections, then plant each section into a separate pot. That’s it!
– Tradescantia Spathacea Seed Propagation
The Moses-in-the-cradle plant will flower throughout the year. If the flowers have been pollinated, they will produce seeds. Wait until the seed pods are brown and dried, then cut them from the stem and collect the seeds. Fill a shallow container with a well-draining soil mix, sprinkle the seeds on top, and cover with a light layer of soil. Water gently, and keep the tray in a warm room, with bright indirect light. The seeds will germinate in a few weeks.
Common Pests and Problems
Tradescantia spathacea rarely suffers from pests and diseases. Most problems you’ll encounter, such as yellowing leaves, are caused by either too much water, poor-draining soil, or too little light.
If purple, variegated plants are your jam, then the Tradescantia spathacea will be perfect for you.
Let’s do a quick recap of what you need to know about growing this low-maintenance plant.
- Tradescantia spathacea is a flowering plant also grown for its purple, variegated foliage.
- It is not a vine. Instead, the plant has a bushy growth habit, and will only grow as wide as two feet.
- Easy to care for, the Moses-in-the-cradle plant needs bright indirect light, well-draining soils, and regular watering to stay healthy.
- The plant is invasive in several states in the US, so if you want to grow it outdoors, make sure that it does not escape cultivation.
So if you’re looking to add the beautiful Tradescantia spathacea to your collection, what are you waiting for!
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