Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina)

The story of the Wandering Jew is both very old and very stupid. I mean, I'm sorry, but there it is. It's a dumb story. There are several versions, some more pleasant than others, but they all revolve around the same basic idea: that somewhere out there, for some reason, is a Jew who has been alive since the Crucifixion of Jesus, and who has to remain alive until Jesus returns. In some versions of the story, he has no given name; in others, he's called Cartaphilus,1 Malchus, or Ahasuerus. The connection to Jesus was kind of new in the Middle Ages, when the story really took off, but there have long been stories about people who were immortal for one reason or another, some of whom were also doomed to wander the earth.


The most typical version of the story2 seems to be that the Jew in question goaded Jesus as he was carrying the cross to Golgotha, telling him to hurry it up, or something similar. Then Jesus, who was about to be infinitely, divinely forgiving of the sins of the entire world, turned to him and said something to the effect of, "yeah, yeah, I'm going, I'm going, and you're going to wait for me to get back, sucker." I mean, not that we wouldn't all be tempted to say something like that in Jesus's place, but come on, either you're the Son of God or you're not, right? "Forgive them, they know not what they do?" Consistent much?3

So but then the character of the Wandering Jew turns up in various spots throughout literature and movies and who knows what all else. Check the Wandering Jew FAQ if you're interested.4

It's hard for me to imagine Tradescantia zebrina snarking at Jesus en route to Golgotha; they seem too upbeat for that. It's also hard for me to imagine Jesus cursing and withering a Tradescantia zebrina, as far as that goes, mostly because I can't imagine anyone, Son of God or no, being able to stifle a Tradescantia zebrina for very long. I could maybe see a kind-hearted Tradescantia letting Jesus think it had been cursed, and then hurriedly regrowing once Jesus had gone on.

I assume that the reason why the story and the plant became associated with one another is that, like immortal wanderers, Tradescantia zebrina does, eventually, get everywhere. It's originally from Eastern Mexico (Tamaulipas south and east to the Yucatan), but it's been introduced all over the place since then, and can be grown as an outdoor perennial ground cover anywhere in U.S. zones 9a to 11 (One source said 8-11, even.), hardy down to about 20ºF (-7ºC).

Like its close relative Tradescantia pallida,5 T. zebrina has invasive potential, and is, if not actually taking over any ecosystems, at least being very closely watched. The main problems with T. zebrina are: 1) the roots are capable of sprouting new surface growth on their own, though in practice they seem not to do this all that often. 2) most pieces of an existing plant are capable of rooting and growing another plant (I'm not even sure you have to have a node, necessarily. I keep meaning to experiment with this.). 3) The stems are ridiculously brittle.6 Eradication, consequently, depends on one being able to collect every piece of plant from the area to be cleared. For small areas, this isn't that tough, but the bigger the patch to be cleared, the more careful you have to be. And forget about using Roundup, too. Doesn't work.

So it's like the mythical Wandering Jew at least in one respect: it will certainly still be here until the Second Coming. Whenever that might be. Whether it wants to or not.

As is usually the case, being flexible and prolific enough to be an invasive means that it's a great, easy houseplant. It's not a plant that likes to be neglected, particularly: it's more the plant I recommend to someone who's really into houseplants but has never had that many before, the plant you give to somebody who really wants to fiddle with a plant. (It's also, I'm told, useful for a lot of situations in botany classes: quick growth, quick propagation, easy to examine under a microscope because the cell layers separate easily from one another.)

LIGHT: Tradescantia zebrina can survive without much light at all, though without at least filtered sun (full sun preferred), the leaves' colors will be less intense and more green: it takes a lot of light to get the purple color.

WATER: They're fairly tolerant of both extremes, though I find that they do better if I aim to keep them pretty wet. If they're allowed to dry out regularly, the older leaves turn brown and crispy, which eventually leads to a mass of bare stems tipped with foliage. This is kind of an inevitable look anyway (see GROOMING), but keeping them more moist can slow down the process.

TEMPERATURE: Individual leaves will burn, and stems will die back, at around 32ºF (0ºC), but the plant can regrow as long as it doesn't get colder than 20ºF (-7ºC). Anywhere in your home should be fine.

HUMIDITY: Tradescantia zebrina tolerates dry air very well, in my experience, though sometimes people blame dry air for older leaves dying or burning. My personal suspicion is that this is probably either a temperature or watering issue, but I am sometimes wrong, so I'm passing this on. Take cuttings and experiment for yourself.

PESTS: I've never seen any pests on the work plants or on my own plants at home; this doesn't mean it's not possible, but they do tend to be healthy. Aphids can be an issue for plants that spend summers outside.

FEEDING: They're fast-growing, and consequently do need more food than most other indoor plants. Keep in mind, though, that if you're guessing how much food to give them, more is not automatically better. Package directions, or slightly more than package directions, should be plenty.

GROOMING/PROPAGATION: Because they grow very quickly, and because they tend to drop the lowest leaves on a stem over time, older plants often get scraggly-looking. Outdoors, this isn't a huge deal; stems grow in all directions, and if a spot is bare, a new stem will cover it up soon enough. Indoors, though, things are slower, and you do have to help the plant along a bit by starting new plants in the same pot. Propagation of Tradescantia zebrina is very easy: it will usually work to break off the end of a stem, make a hole in the dirt, and shove the stem in the hole. This works about 80-90% of the time whether you know what you're doing or not. Plants are also easily started as cuttings in water, which is the same process but with water instead of a hole in dirt: this works essentially 100% of the time. Usually roots will begin to grow within two weeks; often within one week. Pot them up whenever.

Tradescantia zebrina also grows quickly below-ground, so they tend to need frequent repotting, dividing or root-pruning, if you're wanting to keep the same plant going. In practice, it is often easier to just chop the whole thing back and use the pieces to start a brand-new plant. Moving a plant to a new pot that's two inches wider isn't necessarily a bad idea, but the bigger the plant gets, the less two inches is going to matter, and there comes a point where repotting is kind of pointless.7

The dead leaves have a tendency to crumble to dust when you try to take them off, which is sort of frustrating. On very large or old plants, one will also sometimes have to pull out dead stems,8 which is easier.

It's a safe plant to have around pets and children, though the sap can apparently be irritating to skin.9 So I don't advise eating it on purpose, regardless of age or species. The Wikipedia entry for Tradescantia zebrina contains a sentence saying that a tea is made from the plant in some parts of Mexico, which seems like a suspicious piece of information to me. Might be true, might not, probably best not to experiment on yourself (or other people!) in order to find out. There seem to be a lot of things like this in Wikipedia entries for plants: I'm starting to think that there must be someone who goes around and adds stuff like this to all the plant entries in the hopes of getting people to poison themselves (see also Zamioculcas zamiifolia and Pedilanthus tithymaloides).

Like all (all?) Tradescantias, this one does flower, though I don't think it forms seeds.10 The precise color of the flowers varies depending on the particular cultivar, but they are all small (about 0.5 in / 1 cm), three-petaled things in varying shades of purple, much like Tradescantia pallidas but slightly bluer and smaller. The flowers are pretty, but each individual flower only lasts a day. Good light and adequate feeding seem to be necessary but not sufficient for flowers: in the greenhouse at work, all the Tradescantias bloom at random moments throughout the year. (It doesn't seem to be seasonal, though admittedly I haven't been paying terribly close attention.) As I write this, the sillamontanas are flowering heavily, but not the zebrinas or pallidas, and I have yet to see the spathaceas at work ever flower. Earlier in the year, the pallidas were flowering but the sillamontanas and zebrinas were not.

At work, we have three different cultivars of T. zebrina at the moment; I don't have names for any of them.11 The first is the one I think of as the "normal" wandering Jew. It has purple leaves, with clean-edged silver stripes on them. As best as I can figure out, this is the only one that was available back in the 1970s when wandering Jew was one of the big, popular houseplants, and it's still (arguably) the most attractive.

The second is also purple and silver, but the stripes aren't clean-edged: purple and silver fade into one another in spots, and there aren't many spots that are all purple or all silver. The leaves also seem to me to be a little broader than the standard version, and it's a little bit greener overall, whether in good light or not. The second picture in this post, waaaaay up there, is of this cultivar.

The third is almost entirely purple, and it's a redder purple than the other two. I wasn't initially that impressed by it, until we had to put some flats of it up high to get them out of the way, when I realized that they're downright gorgeous when they're backlit by the sun. In very bright light, some of the leaves will get partial silver stripes ("chevrons," one site called them), though only some.

There's also a green-and-white version, which I've seen occasionally. We don't have it at work, and I'm not positive that it's zebrina, actually, but it looks essentially the same except for color and most of the sources I ran across that mentioned it list it as a zebrina. I only know of one named cultivar, T. 'Quadricolor,' which is thought to be a hybrid of T. zebrina and T. fluminensis, and has pink, green and white stripes on the leaves' upper surface. We have something like this at work, though the leaves are significantly smaller and I'd assumed that it was probably a different species entirely. Also the variegation in the work ones has been disappearing; most of the stock now is just a plain, dull olive green on top and purple underneath. We can't seem to interest the customers in it whether it's variegated or not.

The regular variety, though, sells quite well, during two specific periods. We sell it in four-inch pots as a spring annual (I can't believe that so many people would pay so much money for something that would overwinter so well, but they do.), and it's been doing well this fall as an indoor houseplant in a hanging basket, partly (I suspect) because it's priced a little lower than most of the other plants of the same size. So we always have some of it around, though the form and amount vary a lot.

I don't know how much the name "wandering Jew" bothers people. It bothers me a little bit sometimes, though none of the alternate names (inch plant, spiderwort) are as specific or as well-known. I know at least one customer who bought it specifically for the name, though: I overheard one customer this spring talking to someone with her, to the effect of, "Oh. 'Wandering Jew.' Well, that's appropriate, right? Should we get it for them? You think they'd appreciate it?"


Photo credits: Mine, except for the picture of the flower, which comes from Wikipedia and is credited to "ruestz."

1 Which unless I'm very confused means "lover of maps" in Greek: carta meaning map, as in cartography, and philus being lover of, as in Philodendron, necrophilia, or philanthropy. (Carta could also mean paper/charter/document, apparently, as with the Magna Carta, so perhaps he just loved paper. Which is understandable.) Which I suppose if you were doomed to wander the earth for 1,975 years and counting, you would probably eventually get very good at reading maps, but you'd probably get pretty good at a lot of other things too.
2 Nothing even a little bit like this is in the actual Bible, so there's no authoritative or definitive version of the story.
3 I suspect that this snarky aspect of the story comes from people who heard about Jesus being a badass in the temple with the moneychangers (Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46) and fearlessly taking on a Ficus carica tree (Mat. 21:18-22 / Mk. 11:12-14 and 20-24), and assumed that he was then obviously a macho stud who kicked ass and took names everywhere he went, especially the asses/names of those filthy, filthy Jews who killed him. A lot of Christians, I'm afraid, have absolutely no idea what Jesus was talking about and have never made even a tiny effort to read up on this or apply his teachings to their own personal lives. Either that, or they aren't even particularly interested, and only claim to be Christians because it's politically expedient to do so. I'm thinking of a few people in particular.
Either way, random Jew-cursing on the way to Golgotha is really not in character.
The withering-the-fig-tree business, either why Jesus did it or why anybody found it impressive, has always confused me. I mean, shit, I've withered some Ficus trees in my time; it's neither difficult nor impressive. And isn't it kind of, well, silly to curse a tree? Are we to understand that the tree could have had figs and for some reason chose not to? 'Cause if plants have free will, then we may as well throw this whole blog out and start over again.
4 Yes, there's a Wandering Jew FAQ. There is a webpage for everything. E.g. 5 Cats That Look Like Wilford Brimley. Or Japanese Women Slapping Each Other in the Face: the Game. Or Dramatic Readings of Break-Up Notes (don't listen if you're at work. It's not so much that it's NSFW, it'd just be embarrassing and weird to have people catch you listening to it.). I very much love the internet sometimes.
5 Names get confusing. With T. pallida, there seems to be fairly good agreement now that Tradescantia, and not Setcreasea, is the correct genus, but one still sees Tradescantia zebrina and Zebrina pendula used more or less interchangeably, and I honestly had to make a guess on the name for this post. Since the trend lately has been to lump plants together into a limited number of large genera, rather than splitting plants apart into many small genera, I'm going with Tradescantia zebrina. I'd love to know what the actual situation is: if anybody knows what the taxonomic consensus is these days, please, leave a comment.
6 This is especially bad from a retail perspective, because it means that plants aren't likely to ship very well. You can load the most beautiful plant in the world onto the truck, but if it arrives shattered into a million pieces, you've just wasted a lot of time. It's actually probably more economical (and less frustrating!) to mail the pieces and have the recipient plant them and grow them out. I try to remember to tell customers that although some of the plant will break off while they're getting it home, the pieces can be stuck back in the soil and will actually make the plant look better in the long run.
7 There are a lot of other relatively common houseplants like this, where it's often simpler to restart the plant than try to up-pot and shape it to look attractive. I'd include Plectranthus verticillatus in this category, as well as Hypoestes phyllostachya, Tradescantia pallida and Pilea cadierei.
8 Most dead stems result from accidental breakage of a plant as it's being moved; one doesn't notice that there's been a break immediately because the plant can keep going, recycling the water from old growth to build new growth, for a long time. Sometimes, too, in very old or dense plants, stems can weigh enough to starve one another of light, or crush one another under the accumulated weight of all the vines at once. It's not really a big deal either way, and the occasional dead stem doesn't mean the plant is dying.
9 Not a problem I've had personally, but people always mention this when talking about it so I figure I'd better as well.
10 I had a disagreement with one of the nursery lot guys about whether plants that flower necessarily always produce seeds, or are even necessarily capable of producing seeds. I said they don't and aren't. I can't prove this, but I'm 99%+ sure that I'm right about plants in general, that somewhere out there, there are entire species of plants that go through all the motions of flowering but are nevertheless completely sterile anyway. And I'm about 98% certain that some of those plants are Tradescantias, specifically pallida, zebrina, and spathacea. Maybe fluminensis and sillamontana too, even. He used to teach at a community college, though, so it's hard work to convince him of things he doesn't already believe.
11 It's very likely that nobody sees the point in patenting a plant that propagates this easily: sure, you could get a patent, but enforcing the patent would be essentially impossible.


  1. I work with a guy named Morris Cohn who drinks a tea like that. I'd ask him about it but he's never at his desk.

  2. Excellent post! I had often wondered how this plant had gotten the name "Wandering Jew" and this post answered all of my questions about the plant. Keep up the great work!

  3. I agree that not all plants go to seed, although I'm not sure the cause. Could be that no one has a male Tradescantia to get the flowers to actually bear seeds. I know I've tried to get my orchids to bear seeds, just to see if I could. Got close once, it started to form a fruit, but I guess it got tired and threw the pod away before it actually matured.

    I also wondered about the name, thanks for the information and history lesson.

  4. Well now, this is really cool. I've also wondered why this plant is named that way. It's quite an interesting reason.

    Anyhow, welcome back. I hope you got a chance to rest!

  5. Best. Post. Ever. :) I love your footnotes!

    You know, the myth of the Wandering Jew strikes me as being similar in nature to Greek myths-- some guy pisses off a god, and he ends up being forced to do X for eternity.

  6. patrick m~:

    Maybe if you wrote the question out? On a map?

    water roots:

    Some. Though I still had to work, and got sick in the middle of it all (Saturday mostly) so it wasn't as relaxing as it could have been.

    perky skeptic:

    That's true. It's weird how never having to die is a punishment so often, considering how much effort is expended in the name of living longer. I suppose it might be kinda depressing. I mean, human nature's got to look a little less attractive once you see your eleventh or twelfth war.

  7. I never understood what was supposed to be so bad about being cursed to live forever.

  8. You know, I've never liked this plant. I don't think it's pretty, and I never was able to keep the stems full and leafy. (I feel the same way about the jewel orchid Ludisia discolor.) And I've never had much patience with indoor plants that need a makeover every year or so. I stopped growing pilea for the same reason. Maybe if I didn't hate to repot so much, I would like them better!

    But I love my outdoor Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate' and her relatives. They have gorgeous flowers, Kate has awesome chartreuse foliage as well, and they will conveniently just go dormant during a bad drought, then come back. Cute flowers too, just like the wandering jew flowers.

    Why would a plant bother to make flowers if it were sterile? You may be right, I'm not disagreeing with you, I have no idea really. But I always read that flowers were the plant's sex organs, so it makes sense that procreation should be involved, no?

    The interior landscaping company I work for was called The Wandering Jew in its early days. The owner travelled around, in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood taking care of indoor plants, and he was Jewish too. It cracks me up every tinme I think about it. Of course, this was in the 70's. The name was later changed to something more politically correct, but way more boring!

  9. Tradescantia spathacea does flower and set seeds.
    Just google the name and
    "invasive" to see the places in Florida (of course) it's spread to.
    Chris in Arid Austin

  10. Since writing this, I've been paying attention to where I find volunteer Tradescantias in the greenhouse. Based on that, I think T. fluminensis sets seed fairly often but the other Tradescantias we have (pallida, zebrina, spathacea) do not, whether they're capable of it or not. says that T. zebrina "rarely flowers or reproduces from seed." Not sure what to make of that exactly, but it at least would indicate that most of the flowers serve no purpose, whatever they may theoretically be capable of.

  11. So glad I found your blog and this entry. I stole a snippet of WJ from a planter during lunch and put it in some water to root. One of my lunch companions is Jewish, and I was hoping hard he wouldn't ask me what the plant is called. It got me to wondering why it was named the Wandering Jew. I appreciate your insight, and your blow--you're funny and informative, and that's always a sight for sore eyes.

  12. Amazingly entertaining and informative post.
    Several months ago I stepped on a piece outside a flower shop and took the little stem home. Would you believe I was able to make several plant clippings off that little stem? Problem is, I can't get a full plant, I just get these long stems. What can I do to make it a little fuller, like a Pothos or my Heartleaf Philodendron? I know it's a different plant but I have seen bushy ones. What's the secret?

  13. Kim:

    They'll branch on their own, which will help them fill in, but you have to give them a lot of light if you want them to branch a lot.

    The other thing is that I think the really full baskets are normally produced from a lot of cuttings in the same pot; i.e., you may have to keep taking cuttings and planting them with the original plant until you get a full pot. When I worked in the greenhouse and started new plants there, I was putting three cuttings in a 3-inch pot, five cuttings in a 4-inch pot, eight cuttings in a 6-inch pot, and eleven cuttings in an 8-inch pot. The 6- and 8-inch pots took a few months to fill in; the 3- and 4-inch pots were pretty full almost immediately.

  14. Thank-you so much! Makes complete sense. I guess since they root so well it's not that bad. My plant is about a foot tall with 9 stems that are mostly that length but I may cut it in half to root as I don't need it that tall. I'll just get busy.
    Thanks for your help!

  15. Great post! In spring 2007, a friend shipped me a few small T. zebrina cuttings, and they've since grown into several plants. I have a bunch of small ones indoors in terrariums. They receive filtered light in there, but I have a 10 gallon aquarium that I made into a terrarium that receives full afternoon sunlight, and they are going crazy in there!

    My largest plant is in a hanging pot on my front porch. It's west-facing so it receives full afternoon light, and that plant has turned a deep purple and the leaves are long and rolled up. The indoor plants retain the stripes but outdoors in all that light it's changed colors. That one blooms all the time, too. I wasn't sure it would be happy with so much sun but it's been out there for over a year now, so I guess I'm doing something right!

  16. Almost impossible to it to death

  17. There are several plants that produce flowers, but do not seed. Some will produce a seed that simply never grows. These plants have all developed other means to propagate themselves more efficiently than by seed, and simply haven't 'lost' the flowering part yet. Strawberries are a great example. They produce seed (and fruit, yay!) for no reason whatsoever, using runners to produce more plants.

  18. I recall hearing the tradescantia/zebrina plants called Wandering Sailor also in England.

  19. WONDERFUL post! Thankyou,.
    ... I relished it....I just shocked my family and friends by having a Wandering Jew go from a 3 inch cutting into noticable houseplant in less than a month.

    And your mention that plants have free will is the last piece of puzzle I needed to play joyously with my new house plant friends... how special!

  20. I was enjoying, this well composed, article. In the fourth paragraph, I bumped into this verb, "snarking", and looked it up. The slang snarky, is British in origin, circa 1906. Snarkily is the adverb. sort of novel, to make up a verb "snarking", in this fashion.

  21. Is this meant to be an Anti-Christ post?
    Despite dropping those hints, I have to admit this is a wonderful post. ;)

  22. Anonymous:

    No. I mean, it's all pretty much right there on the surface. The story's dumb, the depiction of Christ is inconsistent with what he's supposedly about to do, the punishment is way disproportionate to the offense: these are my feelings about it.

  23. Melissa'sMomApril 4, 2016 at 3:45 PM

    I love my wandering Jew plants. I am in North Florida Zone 8 and they have been through very Hot 100 plus degrees down to single digits. Like the Jews they are tough and seem to survive almost anything I got my original plant from many from were I worked up until 5 years ago. So also like the Jews it survives relocation and captivity. The weed eater tends to get a little rough with my plants around the edges but they always come back stronger. I kind of prefer what I think is the origin of the name. I just call it my Jewish plant.

  24. Hi there, I came across your blog when I was looking for plants safe for cats and then started wondering about the name "wandering Jew" ( which I assumed would probably have a negative story behind it). I appreciated and enjoyed your comments about it and decided to go ahead and get one (despite the gross story) because it is beautiful and survives people like me who are terrible with plants. Thank you.

  25. I love the colours. I had a friend bring me the plant when I moved home. It was originally a cutting from the plant her mother had before she passed away. She just told me the name last week, so doing little research myself. It looks amazing when full and draping over a window ledge.

  26. I was Googling to find out the origin of the name Wandering Jew, as a friend had gifted me the plant and I wanted to avoid using the name when, inevitably, someone asks me about it.

    Thanks for the awesome blog entry! It made me lol, but was also very educational.

  27. Loved the article & love this beautiful plant a friend of mine with an amazing front & back yard which is covered with so many pretty plants this wandering jew plant has ALWAYS been a favorite of mine! Loved the way your colorful view & wording made this article fun to read & I to LOL!
    By from Arizona!

  28. Through various google searches I've been trying to identify this plant for years. Finally today I stumbled across your blog and now I know what it is! I love it, it's so pretty and so easy to propagate. It actually ended up in my garden because a piece of it broke off at the garden centre and fell into my mum's handbag. When we discovered it we decided to shove it in a pot and see what happened. A wanderer indeed!
    Thank you for solving this mystery for me, and for all the effort that goes into your blog. :)

  29. I LOVE your writing; so informative and witty!