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A Tangle of Tradescantias

June 26, 2010

Tradescantia zebrina is one of the first houseplants I remember, from my kindergarten days, standing on top of my bookshelf, hanging down beside the window. One day it was gone – I suppose my mother threw it away because it was looking ugly – apparently we didn’t yet know how ridiculously easy that plant is.

Tradescantia zebrina

We didn’t know anything about that plant, really. Not even a name. Until I discovered it again, after starting my horticulture apprenticeship, I had to refer to it as, ‘you know, that silvery thing that was on my bookshelf back in R. Street’.

At the Apprenticeship Place, I was not only formally introduced to T. zebrina, but also to its relative T. fluminensis, with which it shares the common names Wandering Jew and Inch Plant (if you’re wandering wondering about the first name, head on over to Plants are the Strangest People – Mr_Subjunctive explains it all. The second name seems pretty much self-explaining to me – it’s a very fast-growing plant.)

Tradescantia fluminensis

We had three varieties of T. fluminensis (formerly called T. albiflora), although only two were grown intentionally – a green-and-white variegated one and a green-and-yellow variegated one. The green-and-yellow variegated one frequently grew all-green (and occasionally, all-yellow) shoots, bits of which had broken off and fallen off the tables, then rooted and spread all over the greenhouse floor, along with the variegated ones and the zebrina. Oddly enough, I can’t remember any of the green-and-white ones growing on the floor.

Tradescantia fluminensis 'Yellow Hill' (at least, that's what they're sold as around here)

The green-and-white ones were weird, anyway. We carried them as fluminensis, everyone else calls them fluminensis or albiflora (‘Albostriata’ or ‘Quicksilver’ or ‘Silvery Hill’ or ‘Ivory Hill’ or ‘Variegata’ or…) but I don’t think they are.

I mean, just look at them:

left: plain green T. fluminensis; middle: yellow-variegated T. fluminensis; right: white-variegated T. 'no-idea-ensis'

They don’t look very similar, do they? They also branch less – the fluminensises branch quite readily, but the white ones… not even when I’ve cut them back.

I’ve been googling and googling, but the best I could find was a discussion at a German gardening forum… and the only conclusion they came to there was that nomenclature is a mess, and they don’t know for sure either. Probably a hybrid between T. fluminensis and – maybe, maybe – T. crassula.

It’s nice to be backed up in my opinions – even early on in my apprenticeship, I found it odd that these two should be the same plant.

The mysterious white-variegated Tradescantia

It was only later on in my apprenticeship that I was introduced to yet another Tradescantia,  of which we only ever had a couple of pots, and which was not spreading all over the floor, preferring more light than the others – T. pallida, also called Wandering Jew or Purple Heart. To be honest, I’ve never found it very pretty – I find its hairyness somewhat off-putting – but my mother had some growing in a pot on the patio, and a few descendants are still around.

 

The only presentable T. pallida

One way or another, all the other Tradescantias from work came home with me, too – usually as cuttings gathered from under a table on the way out, transported home in my empty lunch box, stuck in some dirt and ignored. Most of them ended up in the living room planter, with the idea that they’d make a good ground cover and hang down over the sides.

 

Newly planted after I'd killed the original inhabitant *sigh*

But that didn’t really work. They just got ugly, leggy, bare-stemmed… except for the mysterious Albostriatavariegataquicksilveryivoryhill (hah. Now, if anyone asks, I’ll tell them that is the name.), which crept all over the radio before getting ugly and bare-stemmed.

So I started cutting them back. And since Tradescantias root so wonderfully easily, I planted them. And then I had more plants that also needed to be cut back, and more cuttings to plant… and ended up with ridiculous amounts of tradescantias. I gave some away at every opportunity, but still had so many this spring that I had to move them all out on the balcony – hidden away under and behind the bench – because they were taking over my room and the propagation area. Luckily, they’ve handled the unusually low temperatures (down to 10°C, even in June) quite well.

And this week I got to talk to my boss about them – and since he says they sell quite well, I can bring in my surplus ones. Yay for making money with my plants! I immediately packed up the two nicest-looking ones and chopped the rest back to make more plants.

Up for sale as soon as they've rooted.

And they’re so wonderfully easy to propagate!

Take an ugly-looking old plant:

And a pot filled with fresh dirt:

Cut some pieces off your ugly old plant (or your pretty new plant, I suppose, if you want to cut it back already. Or your ugly new plant or your pretty old… Ahem.)

How's that for a picture taken with my left hand, with a camera absolutely not suited for being used left-handed? Hah.

I usually go for about 5-7 cm in length, and 10-12 cuttings to a 11 cm pot.

Your ugly old plant is now looking even uglier, but don’t worry, it’ll grow back.

Stick the cuttings in the pot (so that all cuttings ‘face’ the same direction, to get a tidy-looking plant), water them in, wait two weeks or so for them to root, and you’ve got a pretty new plant.

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