Schlub. n. (slang) A stupid, clumsy, or unattractive person. From Yiddish.
Poor Tradescantia pallida. It gets no respect from anybody. It's the Rodney Dangerfield of plants. Not long ago, I was talking with the guy who's in charge of the nursery lot at work, who stopped to make the comment that the plant pictured here didn't look half bad. Had he stopped there, we would have been fine, but then he went on to say that he felt bad about even selling them to any customers, that they looked nice for maybe a week or two and then immediately started to look like crap.
And this isn't the first time I've heard this sentiment from people. Check it out: A Water When Dry post on the subject. There's also this from Mr. Brown Thumb, though it's not that negative, actually, now that I look at it again. There are also some very negative comments (mostly about it being invasive, which I'll get to) at this post at davesgarden.com. , And there's this too, which calls T. pallida the "greatest short-term threat to [John Edwards'] estate's landscaping," and blames it for . . . well, but you'll just have to go read it.
This is actually one of my favorite species of indoor plant, for a very specific reason: it was one of very very few things that kept growing for me during the winter last year. And not just growing, but wildly, out of control, non-stop, enthusiastic, rampant growth. I suppose not everybody would consider this desirable, but when everything else (or just about) has stopped, and you still want to do some indoor plant-tending, it's nice to have a plant that will accommodate you.
Also. It doesn't have to look like crap, not necessarily. I swear. Though you have to meet it halfway. Like with Pilea cadierei, it sometimes needs to be cut back and re-rooted, though that's easily done (which is also like Pilea cadierei). It loses leaves slowly from the base of the stem as it grows,1 which means that eventually, if you let it go long enough, you'll have a pretty sparse-looking plant. But cuttings are easy to take, and easy to root, and the remaining stems will re-sprout most of the time, so it's not all that much trouble, really. Cut off the longer, scragglier ends from time to time and stick them back in the pot and you're done. And if you don't like where it's headed, you can cut the whole plant back to the soil and have essentially a brand-new plant within 4 to 6 weeks. Or, really, two brand-new plants, since the stuff you cut back can be rooted and planted up as well.
Other minor problems: the stems are brittle, and break off easily. Also the plant is invasive in warmer climates,2 so if you choose to grow it outside in the south, make sure that you plan for its eventual spread, by keeping it confined to containers or by routinely cutting it back and carefully disposing of the cuttings. Indoors, neither of these are huge problems, though rarely hanging baskets get bumped and pieces fall off.
What's good about it? Well, aside from the previously-mentioned rampant growth, it's also a very nice color, when grown in good light (full sun). Less light will keep it alive, but it will be more green and less purple. Which you might prefer anyway – it depends on one's taste. The plant in the photo below has gone a bit green from low light.
It's also very nearly pest-free (though like with Yucca guatemalensis, it can still serve as a highway for traveling bugs, so you don't want to place it where it's going to be touching a lot of other plants), and is incredibly easy to propagate. (Cuttings will begin to root in water or soil within a week, and are generally ready to pot up in about two weeks.)
Add the ease of propagation to the speed of growth, and you have a plant that can, literally, quadruple its mass in a year. Seriously. I have no idea how many cuttings have left my apartment, but I know that at the very least, I've made six four-inch pots like the one pictured above, one six-inch pot, a three-foot-long planter, and at least three sets of cuttings that went out in Garden Web trades, plus I've thrown away quite a lot too, all from a hanging basket I bought around December 2006. The situation is even worse at work: the plant grows a lot faster than the demand to buy it does, and so we wind up throwing away a lot of cuttings.
It also flowers easily. The individual flowers are pink with a yellow-orange center, and only last for a day, but generally the same spot will put out a new flower every day for a week or so. Nobody grows them for the flowers, but the flowers are nevertheless nice. Generally flowers only appear on a stem after the stem has decided to branch, though the plant is self-branching, so that's just a matter of waiting long enough.
Extreme cold is fatal (though those I've had in the planter outside are still doing fine, and we've had at least one night with a low around 27ºF / -3ºC. I've heard they're hardy down to 20ºF / -7ºC; this is the year I find out, I guess.). Very little else can knock this plant out: it may be a schlub, but it's tough. Respect it.
Photo credits: all me.