This post shares my tips about how to care for a wandering jew plant. This hardy house plant will make the perfect addition to your collection!
How to Care for a Wandering Jew Plant
The wandering jew plant (also known as Tradescantia zebrina, inchplant, or spiderwort) is a beautiful plant suitable for both indoor and outdoor (in many places) growth. It has stunning deep purple and green leaves with silver stripes that grow quite densely, but there are different varieties.
It’s a great houseplant for those of you who want to up the ante a bit from snake plants and pothos plants. (Want to learn more about those? Read my guides on how to care for pothos plants and how to care for snake plants.) It generally doesn’t tolerate quite the level of neglect that a snake plant will, but it is forgiving and hardy.
Where does the name Wandering Jew come from?
When you first hear the name “wandering jew,” you might be confused. Is this an offensive term? Even if you don’t think that, it might give you pause. Why is a houseplant called “wandering jew”? I found a few resources I want to share before we talk about wandering jew plant care. Note that my take on this is strictly research-based and is not colored by my religion because I am not a member of any religion. 🙂
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, “its name calls to mind Moses and the Israelites in the Sinai Desert, wandering for 40 years.” Additionally, the Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple who runs the website OzTorah answered a question about the name wandering jew, saying the plant bears the name because it “has a tendency to spread” and that this name was “probably given without conscious antisemitic malice.” Apparently there is also a bird called a wandering jew!
But here’s where the origins get a little iffy. The story of The Wandering Jew is actually Christian-centric legend. The legend says that the Wandering Jew is a mythical immortal man who “taunted Jesus” en route to being crucified and was cursed to walk the Earth until the second coming.” Taunting isn’t cool, but eternal punishment seems harsh, Jesus. According to OzTorah, “the underlying notion is that the Jews are destined to wander and be reviled because they rejected Jesus.” Oof.
Wait, so is it cool to use the name or what?
I’m going to say yes because everything I read from Jewish folks describing the connection to the plant seemed cool with it. The OzTorah website also says that the original story is unlikely to have had a specific connection with Jews—though some Christians have morphed it in to an antisemitic legend.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency website also says the following about the term “wandering Jew”:
This motif of the wandering Jew also took form as an 1844 French novel, opera, and silent film which weren’t anti-Semitic so much as straight-up depressing: A Jewish man is separated from his sister by the Bering Strait and condemned to wander the Earth forever. A plague of cholera follows in his wake, and—spoiler alert—he never finds his sister.Jewish Telegraphic Agency
So why, exactly, is a plant called the wandering jew? Well…we’re not totally sure. But most people assume that, like the mythical Wandering Jew character cursed to wander the Earth forever, the Tradescantia zebrina plant has wandered all around the world, from its native Mexico to temperatures under freezing. This hardy dude has been naturalized in Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, and some oceanic islands. He gets around.
Bright indirect light is the best. However, the wandering jew plant can survive in very low light conditions. The lack of light will decrease the amount of purple, though, and make the leaves more green. It takes a decent amount of sun to get the purple color, which is probably why my wandering jew hanging in a shady spot under our deck is much more vibrant than the one potted in the basement.
Water and Fertilizer Needs
The wandering jew plant is relatively patient with watering. It will enjoy a good soak, but it doesn’t like to be wet all the time. Let the soil get mostly dry before watering again. I usually just water when the top few inches feels dry.
You also shouldn’t water directly into the center of the plant. This can lead to rot. As with other houseplants, you can water less when its having a rest during the winter. But don’t forget about it totally and let it become too dry. If they dry out too much, some of the leaves can turn brown and crispy, falling off of the stems and leaving bare spots. Not a cute look.
Your wandering jew will thank you for a diluted houseplant fertilizer monthly during its active growing period (the warmer months)—though I fed mine through the winter and it was fine. It grows quickly, so it will devour the food.
Temperature and Humidity
Indoors, it’s fine everywhere. Yay for flexible houseplants for tricky rooms! Outdoors, the wandering jew plant will do fine in hot temperatures, but I keep mine in the shade. It will die above ground under freezing, unless it gets below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it will regrow (also called wintering over). The plant tolerates a variety of humidity levels.
Pruning, grooming, and repotting
This is where I think wandering jew plants are a bit harder than basic houseplants: they need some help staying pretty. They grow quickly and drop older leaves, which can leave the plant looking stemmy and spindly. This is especially a problem indoors where there isn’t quick new growth to cover up the bald spots. Overall these plants do not age well.
You can help your wandering jew plant look beautiful by starting new smaller plants in the same pot as the aging plant (see the propagation section below). You can also just cut a plant down to the soil and use the cuttings to just create a totally new plant. Think of it as recycling.
They grow quickly, so they need frequent repotting. However, their stems are RIDICULOUSLY fragile. Comically so. I don’t even know how this plant stays alive sometimes. So be prepare to lose some of the plant when you repot.
How to propagate wandering jew plants
Luckily, though, this plant is incredibly easy to propagate from cuttings. There are three ways to do it. The first is by cutting off long stems and burying them in fresh, moist soil. The cuttings will begin to root, and you’ll probably see new growth within a few weeks.
The second way is my favorite: rooting cuttings in water. I have a weird fascination with rooting cuttings in water because I love seeing the new root growth. In water, I can also guarantee that the healthy new roots are sprouting before I replant. I find the new roots grow quicker in water than pothos does, for example. (See a post on how to propagate pothos plants.)
The third way to grow a new wandering jew plant from cuttings is to take cuttings and lay them on top of moist soil. The little node areas should have contact with the soil. You could sprinkle a thin layer on top of the joints as well. Roots will begin to form after a while if you keep the area moist but not sopping wet.
Wandering Jew plant varieties
There are actually three major varieties of wandering jew plants, or Tradescantias. The most common variety is probably the Tradescantia Fluminensis, also known as the small-leaf spiderwort, river spiderwort, wandering willie, wandering gypsy, and more. I don’t have this variety, but it’s a solid green variety with longer leaves.
Tradescantia Zebrina is probably the most common wandering jew plant you see indoors. And, in my opinion, it’s the variety I most strongly associated with the plant. It’s the one with the deep purple, green, and silver markings. I have it in a few places in my home.
Finally, the Tradescantia Pallida (commonly known as purple queen, purple secretia, and purple heart) is a striking deep purple variety with longer, pointer leaves. It is native to Mexico, and we saw a lot of it planted outdoors while on vacation there. I have it in my backyard in a few spots. I tried it indoors, but the lack of light led the plant to turn green. We also have it in the atrium at my work, and since it gets a bit more light there, it is a mix of green and purple.
All varieties are safe to have around kids and pets, but don’t eat it. If your cats eat it, they’ll be fine, but they’ll probably barf because they’re cats.
Want more plant content? Check out my rubber plant care guide, my string of pearls care guide, my prickly pear cactus care guide, my peperomia plant care guide, my philodendron care guide, my snake plant care guide, and my post about 15 DIY planters to help you decorate with plants!