Wondering how to care for the lovely tradescantia zebrina? I’m sharing my care tips here, including how much light the plant needs, why your leaf colors may be fading, how to propagate it from cuttings, and much more!
How to care for a wandering tradescantia zebrina!
Today we’re talking about the tradescantia zebrina plant—the plant that probably causes the most drama in houseplant groups online! I’ll tell you why in a bit. Tradescantia zebrina is a species of perennial flowering plant in the Commelinaceae family.
It is native to Mexico and Central America, but it is widely cultivated as an ornamental plant in many parts of the world. Where I live, it is mostly just a houseplant or patio plant in the spring and summer. Zebrina is known for its attractive, purple, silver, and green variegated leaves and its super fast growth rate.
I have grown tradescantia zebrina—and a few other varieties of tradescantia that I’ll mention—both as a houseplant and a patio plant. I’ll outline the pros and cons of both in this care post, as well as covers some FAQs about the plant and how to propagate it.
When shopping for this plant, you’ll also see it referred to as inch plant, wandering dude, wandering tradescantia, spiderwort, and a bunch of other names. It can be really confusing, so it’s best to refer to it as what it is: tradescantia zebrina 🙂
And I’m not some houseplant elitist who doesn’t use common names! I’ve seen some beginners say that it can be overwhelming to use scientific names. But there is a good reason to use the scientific name for this plant…and that is the decades-old common but now outdated name for this plant: wandering jew.
Table of contents
Below is a table of contents that includes everything I cover in this post. We’ll get started with the mythology behind its outdated name and then move into care tips, propagation steps, and more questions you might have about this plant!
- But my grandma calls this a wandering jew! Origins of a name
- So is it cool to use the old name or what?
- Does tradescantia zebrina need sun?
- Does tradescantia like full sun?
- What window should tradescantia zebrina be in?
- How do I make my tradescantia zebrina more purple?
- How often do you water tradescantia zebrina?
- How do I know if my tradescantia needs water?
- Should I bottom water tradescantia zebrina?
- What is the best soil?
- Temperature & humidity
- Why are the tips of my tradescantia leaves turning brown?
- Growth rate & grooming
- When should I repot my tradescantia?
- Does tradescantia like shallow pots?
- Does tradescantia zebrina plants like to climb?
- How do I make my tradescantia bushy?
- How to propagate tradescantia zebrina
- Other tradescantia FAQs
But my grandma calls this a wandering jew!
For decades, the vast majority of plant hobbyists and nurseries have referred to this plant as “wandering jew.” When you first hear the name “wandering jew,” you might be confused. Is this an offensive term? Why does a houseplant have this name?
I found a few resources I want to share before I give my opinion. Note that my take on this is strictly based on internet research; I am not at all religious.
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.”
However, the story of “The Wandering Jew” is Christian-centric legend that makes things a bit iffier. 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.”
According to OzTorah, “the underlying notion is that the Jews are destined to wander and be reviled because they rejected Jesus.” Oof. Religion stresses me out.
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.
So is it cool to use the name or what?
When I first wrote this post many years ago, I said yes. Because everything I read from Jewish folks describing the name seemed okay with it. The OzTorah website also says that the original story is unlikely to have had a specific connection with Jewish people—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
But now? I’d say no. I have noticed a strong trend among houseplant hobbyists to push the outdated name out of common use. The fastest way to start an argument in most houseplant groups on Facebook is to use the outdated name. And I would know—I’ve moderated some large houseplant groups, and the fights took up a lot of my time.
I’m all about evolving our language and the words we use to describe things, and I don’t think that doing so is a sign of being a “snowflake,” which many dummies have referred to me as when I try to moderate these discussions.
I think this falls into that evolution. Many hobbyists refer to the plant now as “wandering dude,” but I think it’s safest to just call it a “tradescantia zebrina.” Because that’s what it is! Please, make things easy on your fellow (wo)man and just call it by its name.
Does tradescantia zebrina need sun?
Ok, now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about tradescantia zebrina care. We’ll start with lighting needs. Tradescantia zebrina prefers bright, indirect light. It can tolerate some direct sunlight, but too much sun can cause the leaves to fade or scorch.
One thing that makes the plant a great choice for your houseplant collection is that it can also tolerate lower light conditions. It can also grow well under fluorescent lights or grow lights. However, keep in mind that lower light levels can lead to less purple and more green. Below is an example of what I mean.
Does tradescantia like full sun?
Some types of tradescantia can do full sun. I would not recommend putting tradescantia zebrina in full sun, though. I mentioned it does fine with some direct light, usually in the mornings when the sun is a bit weaker.
You can also acclimate the plant to higher levels of full sun as I did with a plant I’d propagated and threw outside hanging from my patio. However, much like how lower light levels will face the purple, I’ve found that higher light levels fade the overall variegation and silver hue.
Below is an example of a plant I had outdoors in really high light levels. It still grew, and they remained purple. But the leaves had a more washed out look with less define variegation.
What window should tradescantia zebrina be in?
I recommend placing a tradescantia zebrina near a window that receives bright, indirect light or filtered direct light. A north- or east-facing window is ideal as it will provide bright light without intense heat or direct sun.
If you choose a south- or west-facing window, the sun might be too strong. Monitor the leaves for any fading or scorching. If, on the flip side, you think your plant isn’t getting enough light, you can consider adding a grow light.
Signs that your plant isn’t getting enough light include leaves that have more green and less purple, smaller leaves, and slower, leggy growth.
How do I make my tradescantia zebrina more purple?
I’ve mentioned a lot about how the light can affect the different colors on your zebrina. One of the most common questions I see is about how to make your tradescantia zebrina more purple. Here are a few things to try—
- Provide bright, indirect light: The plant will produce more purple in brighter light.
- Avoid direct sunlight: Direct sunlight can cause the leaves to fade or scorch.
- Limit fertilization: Over fertilization can cause the plant to produce more green and less purple.
- Monitor the temperature: Lower temperatures may help to keep the leaves more purple.
- Provide humidity: High humidity will help to keep the leaves more purple.
Keep in mind that there are also different types of tradescantia zebrina. Some tend to produce more purple than others, while some produce pinks and greens.
How often do you water tradescantia zebrina?
When watering your tradescantia zebrina, shoot to keep the soil evenly moist. Water the plant once the top few inches of soil feel dry. The frequency of watering will depend on the humidity, temperature, and light levels in your home, as well as the size of the pot and the type of soil.
In general, I water my plants once a week or so in the spring and summer. In the fall and winter, I water much less. For my potted tradescantia zebrinas outdoors, I water almost daily in July and August. The soil dries out so fast in our Maryland heat!
How do I know if my tradescantia needs water?
There are a few signs that you can look for to determine if your zebrina needs water:
- Check the top few inches of soil to see if it feels dry.
- If the leaves appear wilted or droopy, this may be a sign that the plant needs water.
- Pick up the pot—does it feel light? It may need water.
- Dry air and under watering can cause leaf tips to turn brown.
- If the plant’s growth seems to have slowed down, it may be due to lack of water—but there could be a number of other things leading to this, too, so do a care audit.
Should I bottom water tradescantia zebrina?
Bottom watering is a method of watering plants that involves setting a plant into a shallow container of water. The plant’s roots them take up the water they need through the pot’s drainage holes. This method can be beneficial for some plants, including tradescantia zebrina, as it can help to prevent overwatering and promote more consistent moisture levels in the soil.
To bottom water, simply fill a tray or saucer with water and place the potted plant in the tray for 20-30 minutes to ensure that the soil is fully saturated. After that, remove the plant from the tray and allow any excess water to drain away.
However, you don’t have to bottom water your zebrina. I don’t like bottom watering just because it throws off my whole watering routine. Watering traditionally from the top is totally fine. If you think that the foliage is suffering from too much moisture sitting on it, try watering directly into the soil or watering in the morning so the foliage can dry off faster.
Like this? Check out my post about Tradescantia Nanouk Care and Propagation!
What is the best soil?
Tradescantia zebrina prefers well-draining, nutrient-rich soil. A good potting mix for this plant should contain a combination of peat moss (or the more eco-friendly coco coir), perlite, and vermiculite. You can also add some compost to provide additional nutrients.
Generally, any potting mix you pick up from your local nursery should be fine as long as it is labeled for indoor plants or houseplants. In a pinch, a cactus or succulent soil is okay to use, too. Any well-draining soil will go a long way in helping to prevent overwatering and root rot!
Temperature & humidity
The ideal temperature range for tradescantia zebrina is between 60 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. They are not cold or frost tolerant and will begin to suffer below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be grown outdoors in warm climates, but you can only keep it outside all year if you’re in USDA grow zones 9, 10, or 11.
Tradescantia zebrina can benefit from occasional misting, too. Higher humidity levels can help to keep the leaves of the plant looking healthy and vibrant. Misting can also help to keep the plant’s leaves clean and free of dust. However, the best way to keep humidity levels high is by adding a humidifier.
Why are the tips of my tradescantia leaves turning brown?
If you notice that the tips of your tradescantia leaves are turning brown, it’s likely a result of low humidity levels. Dry air can cause the tips of the leaves to turn brown, especially during the winter months when indoor heating can dry out the air.
However, if the leaves are turning more of a mushy brown (instead of a crispy brown), it could be a result of overwatering. Leaves can fade and turn yellow or brown when the plant is suffering from waterlogged soil and potentially root rot.
Tradescantia is also a bit sensitive to fertilizer, so make sure you aren’t over-fertilizing. Too much fertilizer can burn the foliage and cause the leaf tips to turn brown. Once of the reasons I don’t use chemical fertilizer—I’m always afraid I’m going to over-fertilize!
Growth rate & grooming
The plant produces long, trailing stems that can grow up to 3 feet, and it’s a fast grower. However, they can drop older leaves as they grow, 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. However, they produce new roots along the stems as they grow, which helps the plant to spread and fill in an area quickly.
When should I repot my tradescantia?
I recommend repotting your tradescantia zebrina when it becomes heavily rootbound. It doesn’t mind being a bit rootbound. But when you notice the roots beginning to poke out of the pot’s drainage holes, it’s time!
This typically occurs every 1-2 years for indoor plants depending on the growth rate and pot size. The best time to repot is in the spring, when the plant is in its active growth phase. A few other signs that the plant needs to be repotted are the plant becoming too top heavy, the soil drying out too quickly, or slowing growth with no other obvious cause.
When you do repot the plant, do so very carefully. The stems on this one are ridiculously fragile! They seem to break off if I just look at them the wrong way. When pieces inevitably do break off, save them to propagate (more on that in a bit).
Does tradescantia like shallow pots?
Tradescantia zebrina does not have specific requirement for the pot depth. It can be grown in a shallow or a deep pot. However, in general, I recommend using a pot that is only slightly larger than the plant’s current root system. A pot that is too deep may hold too much water, which can lead to root rot. A pot that is too shallow may dry out too quickly.
When you’re repotting your plant, make sure to use fresh, well-draining soil. Choose a pot that is about an inch or two bigger than the pot you’re sizing up from. This will give your plant enough room to spread its legs while also not giving it too much space!
Does tradescantia zebrina plants like to climb?
No, tradescantia zebrina is not a climbing plant. It is a trailing or spreading plant. However, you can train it to climb or spread vertically. You’ll need a trellis or moss pole to do so. I’ve never trained this plant to climb, so I can’t speak to the specifics of how and why you’d do it.
How do I make my tradescantia bushy?
There is nothing prettier than a big, bushy trailing plant. A healthy and full tradescantia zebrinas will take your breath away! There are several ways to make a tradescantia zebrina bushier:
- Pinching back the tips of the stems encourages the plant to branch out and become bushier. This should be done when the plant is in its active growth phase, typically in the spring or summer. You can pinch with your fingers or scissors.
- Pruning the stems back to a node (a point on the stem where leaves grow) encourages the plant to produce new growth and become bushier.
- Repotting the plant into a slightly larger pot can give it more room to grow and become bushier.
- Giving the plant plenty of bright, indirect light will encourage more compact, vibrant growth,
How to propagate tradescantia zebrina
This plant is incredibly easy to propagate from cuttings. I’ll go over two ways to do it here. 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.
You can also 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 of soil 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.
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, too.
Below is a series of cuttings I rooted in water for a few weeks. Then I planted them all together in one hanging pot to put outside. I took the pictures of the cuttings in a pot about 2 weeks after planting them!
Other tradescantia FAQs
Here are a few other things you might encounter when caring for the tradescantia zebrina, from toxicity to air purification ability, pests, and more!
Is tradescantia zebrina safe to have around pets?
According to the ASPCA, the tradescantia zebrina is considered to be mildly toxic. However, I found a lot of mixed information about its toxicity online. I recommend keeping all plants—even non-toxic ones—plants away from nosy pets (and kids!) anyway. Zebrina is meant to be an ornamental plant, not to be ingested.
Does tradescantia purify air?
The claim that many houseplants can help to purify the air in your home is based on a 1989 clean air study commissioned by NASA. I wrote about this at length in my pothos plant care post, but here’s the skinny.
The study’s goal was to research ways to clean the air in sealed environments like space stations. Its results suggested that some common indoor plants may also provide a natural way of removing volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
However, those results can’t be translated to a regular building with air flow—just a sealed space like a space station. And an additional review of the information in 2014 shared that later studies failed to replicate the information from the 1989 study.
So while it might not be as good as an air filtration device, it looks lovely! And having plants around sure does boost my mood. That has to count for something, right?
Can you put tradescantia in the bathroom?
If your bathroom has at least a small window, bathrooms are actually an ideal place for tradescantia zebrina plants. That’s because they can have slightly higher ambient humidity levels when compared to the rest of your home. And they don’t need much light–just a small window will do!
Can tradescantia go outside in summer?
Absolutely. In fact, where I live in Maryland, our big box garden centers are filled to the brim with tradescantia zebrinas beginning in April and lasting all season long! They love our warm, humid climate in the summer.
Just make sure to watch your light levels. Too much light can scorch the leaves and dull the variegation. I shoot for a shaded spot that is just out of the sun’s reach. Maybe with a bit of direct morning sun, which is weaker than afternoon sun.
Does the plant have any pest issues?
Tradescantia zebrina plants are generally considered to be relatively pest-free, but they can be susceptible to some annoying bugs. These include spider mites, mealybugs, thrips, and aphids. If you notice any crawling bugs, webbing, or distorted leaves with no other obvious causes, do a pest audit.
Make sure to check around where the leaf meets the stem and on the undersides of leaves. Pests can often hide there. I recommend checking over your plants on watering day to hopefully help catch anything that has moved in before it spreads.