Tradescantia fluminensis, a perennial ground-covering plant, is a species that belongs to the spiderwort genus native to South America. The genus is named after John Tradescant the Elder and John Tradescant the Younger – English naturalists and explorers who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Tradescantia fluminensis spreads along the ground with soft, hairless stems and leaves. Its oval, dark-green leaves with pointed tips that are shiny, smooth and slightly fleshy grow up to 1.25 – 2.5 inches (3 – 6 cm) long. It is one of the many plants referred to by common names such as the wandering dude, inch plant, small-leaf spiderwort, river spiderwort, speedy Henry and others.
Several Tradescantia varieties can get easily mixed up for their similar appearance and growth habits. For instance, Tradescantia zebrina has dark green leaves with silver bands, while Tradescantia fluminensis variegata has cream stripes and quicksilver with white stripes.
Tradescantia pallida on the other hand, as its common names Purple Heart or Purple Queen indicate, has striking lilac leaves. We have made an article on Tradescantia Nanouk specifically.
In many places of the world, Tradescantia fluminensis is considered a weed since it grows very fast and prevents the growth of other plants. Consequently, to its invasive character, it is at places even targeted for eradication.
Regardless, it is grown as a garden or houseplant in many places. Even in areas where it is considered a pest, it may be grown as a house plant in variegated forms. As a houseplant, it is appreciated for its lush look and easy care and propagation.
They grow actively from spring to early fall. They usually bloom during summer: small white flowers with three small petals appear in clusters at the tip of the stem, remaining somewhat sheltered between the leaves.
Tradescantia fluminensis is naturally found in South America and grows best in USDA zones 10a–11. This species doesn’t require tropical temperatures to thrive, though – it is quite hardy. As long as it is kept safe from cold and frost, it can withstand and adapt to a wide range of conditions.
The plant prefers moist soil to do well. In sunny areas that dry out for long periods, Tradescantia fluminensis grows weakly but can pull through. Its fleshy leaves and stems retain water, which helps the plant to withstand extended periods of drought or not being watered. Limp leaves perk right back up when getting water, and the plant resumes growth.
For sustainable and steady conditions, it’s optimal to water once the top layer of soil has dried out a little. Adjust watering to the season, from frequent during growing periods to scarce from fall to spring.
One commonly used name for plants in this genus, wandering dude, was previously known as “wandering Jew”. This name has fallen back from circulation as it has an offensive origin. The name “wandering Jew” is based on a fictional character used to support antisemitism from the 13th century through the Nazi propaganda of WWII.
Soil & Fertilizer
Tradescantia fluminensis likes evenly moist soil, but not sitting in excess water, so a well-draining soil type is recommended. The easiest way would be to mix some perlite into a regular potting soil.
When you grow your plant indoors, an unglazed clay pot with a draining hole in the bottom can help the soil get rid of excess moisture. The plant is not demanding regarding pot size: it can successfully thrive in the same cramped pot for years.
Tradescantia fluminensis likes some extra fertilizer during its growing months, though. Use a diluted liquid fertilizer once a month from spring through early fall. It is essential to take a break from fertilizing during the winter period when the plant is closer to dormancy: feeding a plant that is not actively growing might burn the roots.
Tradescantia fluminensis prefers a bright location with at least some direct sunlight, but too intense sun increases the risk of sun-scorch. However, it also tolerates partial to heavier shade. The plant will adapt to medium to low light locations, which can induce changes in the leaf’s coloration.
Some varieties lose the coloration of the leaves in the shade and revert to a primarily green appearance. Some other cultivars of Tradescantia fluminensis lose their variegation inversely in too bright and scorching sunlight. Either way, the plant’s coloration is tied to its light conditions.
As their pest reputation indicates, plants of the Tradescantia genus are known for being incredibly easy to propagate. As one of their common names, inch plant, suggests, as small a piece as an inch-long snippet is enough for growing a new plant: their stems root at any node on the surface. Stick the snippet gently in moist soil and water it as you would a grown plant.
It is also possible to propagate this resistant plant in water. Place the cutting’s stem in water and provide plenty of bright light until you see roots emerging before potting it in the soil. It would also be possible to grow Tradescantia fluminensis in water altogether: then change the water in the vase once a week.
When cared for incorrectly or having less than ideal conditions, you can run into some problems growing this plant:
Spindly and Elongated Plant
Tradescantia fluminensis naturally tends to become spindly and develop elongated internodes, especially in low-light conditions. Regular pruning and pinching of the stems will encourage fuller growth and improve their appearance. Another great trick for a fuller-looking plant is to trim the stems, root the snippets and then plant them back into the same pot.
Limp stems and leaves are usually a sign that the plant lacks water. However, Tradescantia fluminensis resumes normal growth and appearance pretty quickly when watered again. However, too much moisture or stagnant water in the soil can cause yellowing of the lower leaves, little to no growth and rotting of the stems.
Curling or Crisping Leaves
Leaves crisping or curling and turning yellow indicate too hot or dry air. Move the plant away from a heat source if possible and raise air moisture with a humidifier or water plates.
Typical diseases associated with Tradescantia plants are leaf-spot disease, botrytis, powdery mildew & root rot. Moving the sick plant away from other houseplants to always best prevents further outbreaks.
Leaf-spot disease requires treatment with a fungicide and removing infected leaves and any debris to help relieve the symptoms. Botrytis can affect both the plant and the soil. In addition to treatment with a fungicide, it is essential to provide the plant with decent airflow and enough light and decrease watering if needed.
Poor air circulation and too high moisture are also the causes for powdery mildew. The layer of powder can be wiped off from the leaves and stems with a cloth of soapy water before spraying the foliage with an organic fungicide, such as neem oil, mixed with water.
Root rot, however, can not be cured from the outside. Repotting the plant might be necessary after gently removing all the dead and mushy roots from the rootball. If there is a considerable decline in roots, choose a smaller pot to avoid over-potting your Tradescantia fluminensis.
Even though Tradescantia fluminensis is a rather resilient plant, it may become a target of several pests. Keep an eye out for spider mites, mealybugs, aphids, whitefly, root mealybugs, scale & thrips and and fungal gnats. The same principle applies here: separate the infected plant from others to prevent pests from spreading.
Any sudden and seemingly causeless changes often indicate the infestation of some pests: wilting of the plant or leaves curling, yellowing or falling. Spider mites and mealybugs can also be seen on the surface of the plant: spider mites leave a white web on the plant, and mealybugs grow white cottony egg masses.
In these cases, clean the plant gently with rubbing alcohol or soapy water, and rub with neem oil or mist with insecticidal soap. This remedy also helps with aphids or thrips infestation.
When roots are attacked by root mealybugs or gnats’ larvae, dilute neem oil in water and water your plant with it once a week. You can also spread cinnamon on top of the plant to make it more uncomfortable for most pests.
Tradescantia fluminensis is a relatively low-maintenance plant, as it adapts to different circumstances and grows and spreads rather effortlessly. It can be slightly toxic to cats and dogs and may cause some slight irritation on the skin – hence keeping it away from your pets and kids’ reach is recommended.
Nevertheless, it brings lush greenery (and other colors, depending on the Tradescantia variety) to any garden or indoor space.