Inch Plant (Tradescantia zebrina)

Inch Plant

You might have seen the Tradescantia zebrina plant around before, they’re colorful houseplants with small purple, patterned leaves that, as the name suggests, grow horizontally. Taking care of a Tradescantia zebrina plant is an exciting experience that can bring color and texture to your living spaces. With the right care, this houseplant with unusual colors and patterns will thrive in or around your house.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Tradescantia zebrina, formerly known as Zebrina pendula, is a species of creeping plant in the Tradescantia genus. Common names include silver inch plant and wandering Jew. The latter name is controversial, and some now use the alternative wandering dude. The plant is popular in cultivation due to its fast growth and attractive foliage. It is used as a groundcover in warm winter climates, and as a houseplant elsewhere.

Tradescantia zebrina is native to Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, but can also be found on the Caribbean islands. It is naturalized in parts of Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, and various oceanic islands.

The plant grows in thickets in the wetland and rainforest, often on stones in shady and open areas or on river banks at altitudes of 2000 meters or below, but mainly at lower altitudes.

Tradescantia zebrina has attractive zebra-patterned leaves, the upper surface showing purple new growth and green older growth parallel to the central axis, as well as two broad silver-colored stripes on the outer edges, with the lower leaf surface presenting a deep uniform magenta. The leaves are bluish green and usually have two longitudinal stripes that are silvery on the surface and purple on the underside. When chronically exposed to long periods of intense sunlight, the variegation fades and the leaf becomes purple throughout.

The leaf sheaths are thin and translucent, 8 to 12 mm long and 5 to 8 mm wide, at the mouth they are long, otherwise glabrous or slightly hairy.

The low-lying, slightly succulent, perennial, herbaceous plant often forms dense mats or colonies. This is done primarily by natural formation of sinkers. On the nodules of the shoot are root approaches, from which roots develop in permanent contact with water or a sufficiently moist substrate under favorable conditions within a day. 

The shoots are glabrous or hairy. The stalked, parallel-veined leaves are mostly ovate, 4 to 10 cm long and 1.5 to 3 cm wide, pointed towards the tip, rounded to the base. The upper surface is glabrous to mildly hairy, the underside hairless to averagely hairy, ciliate towards the leaf base. The structure of the flower – usually from the three pink petals and the white sexual organs – is similar to that of the other Tradescantia, but unlike what happens in those, the plant branches off thanks to new buds whose attachment starts below that of the leaf (and not above)

The flowers are in groups, supported by two large foliage-like, narrow, ciliate bracts. The hermaphrodite, radial-symmetrical flowers are threefold. The three overgrown sepals are 2 to 3 mm long. The three only grown at the base petals are ovate-blunt, pink to purple and 5 to 9 mm long. The six equally sized stamens are violet hairy. Three carpels have become a top permanent ovary grown. They form capsule fruits that contain gray-brown seeds.

Skin irritation may result from repeated contact with or prolonged handling of the plant — particularly from the clear, watery sap (a characteristic unique to T. zebrina as compared with the other aforementioned types).

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

The Tradescantia zebrina thrives in bright indirect light, but can also tolerate low light conditions.

The best place to put your Tradescantia is a spot that gets bright but indirect light, such as near a south-facing window, but never in direct sunlight. This plant can also tolerate low light conditions, so if you don’t have access to bright indirect light, it’s possible to keep your plant in partial shade as well.

Watering

Inch plants like moist soil but won’t tolerate standing water. Allow the soil to dry out between watering. Overeating leads to root rot.

Too little water results in leaves that turn brown and dry up. These may cling to the stem or fall.

If you don’t have a moisture meter that will indicate when the soil has become dry, you can use your finger as an indicator. Stick it into the soil up to your second knuckle. If it feels dry all the way to your second knuckle, add water. If you feel any moisture from the tip of your finger to your second knuckle, hold off.

When you water, be sure to empty any catchment container after about 30 minutes to reduce the risk of root rot.

Soil

The best soil for the Tradescantia zebrina is one that offers good drainage and air circulation. A lightweight potting mix with equal parts of perlite or coarse sand, peat moss, and general potting soil is ideal for growing a Tradescantia.

These ingredients will hold onto moisture for a few days, but also allow for any excess water to escape to the bottom of the pot quickly. Soil that is moist most of the time tends to compact over time, so the perlite and peat moss helps to provide the soil with structure. These ingredients will help the soil stay light and airy for longer.

This light and airy soil helps to drain excess water quickly, lets oxygen flow freely to the plant’s roots, and can help to reduce the risk of root rot.

Fertilizing

There isn’t any need to feed your inch plants if you re-pot regularly. However, if the growth seems to be slow or stunted and there aren’t any pest or disease symptoms, feed the plant with a mild, balanced fertilizer. 

Look for a water-soluble fertilizer with an NPK of 2-2-2 or 3-3-3. Feed the soil, not the leaves, once in the spring and again in the summer.

Overfeeding will cause the plant to lose its distinct coloring. With overfeeding, the leaves will look mostly green, with little silver or purple. Don’t feed unless you’re certain it’s necessary.

Pruning

It’s recommended to prune your Tradescantia zebrina regularly to encourage new growth and a better appearance. The Tradescantia grows quickly and will benefit from regular pruning, which helps it to maintain its vibrant, healthy look.

Make sure to trim away any yellow or brown leaves that may appear, and use clean scissors or plant pruning shears to avoid damaging the plant.

Finally, make sure you throw away all trimmings immediately as they could be harmful if ingested by animals or young children.

Propagation

Each node segment of the stem can produce an entirely new plant. This characteristic has led to the species becoming invasive in warm regions where it grows outdoors. As a houseplant, it’s a good thing because it means that we can readily reproduce it.

Cuttings can be propagated in soil or water. Look for a healthy stem and cut a section away that contains at least one leaf node. Place the cut end in water or in potting soil in a small container with good soil drainage.

Place the cutting in an area with bright but indirect light. Any direct light could burn the cuttings and should be avoided.

In a few weeks, new roots should develop. If you’re growing in water, you will be able to see the roots. Once they’re an inch long, you can plant the cutting into soil. Be sure to keep the soil moist as the cutting establishes itself. Water-grown cuttings take some time to adapt to soil and need extra moisture during the transition.

If you’re growing in soil, wait for new growth or gently tug the cutting to see if it resists. Once you have roots, you can either move the cutting into a larger pot or allow it to grow in the existing pot until it outgrows it.

In either case, once the plant has become established after a few months, you can move it into a sunnier growing spot and water less often.

Transplanting

You can repot the inch plant during the growing season, so between spring and autumn. If the old pot is completely rooted, it is time for a larger planter. Otherwise, transplanting every two to three years will suffice.

Overwintering

In winter, Tradescantia zebrina can tolerate cooler temperatures, but keep this above 10°C. Place the plant in a bright spot so that the leaves retain their vibrant color. If the plant experiences freezing temperatures, shoots and stems may die of frost.

Pests and Diseases

The Tradescantia zebrina is quite tough and doesn’t suffer from pests very often. However, you can spot a variety of pests, including aphids and spider mites. These pests can be difficult to spot because they are so small and often hide in the plant’s foliage.

Aphids are one of the most common pests for Tradescantia zebrina plants and they can be identified by their green, pear-shaped bodies. Spider mites, on the other hand, are very small and create webs between plant leaves.

If you notice any of these pests on your Tradescantia zebrina, it is important to act quickly and use an appropriate insecticidal soap or neem oil solution.

The best way to prevent pests on your Tradescantia is to keep the plant healthy and well-maintained. Make sure to check for any signs of pests or damage regularly, as this will allow you to treat the plant before it’s too late.

III. Uses and Benefits 

The zebrina can be used for medicinal purposes as well. In Jamaica, these helpful greens are used to treat high blood pressure, coughs, and other cold symptoms. In China, the striped leaves are applied to help reduce swelling. In Mexico, you’ll find a drink called Matali that contains lemon and sweetened zebrina leaves. This makes a refreshing, cold tonic drink.

Inch Plant (Tradescantia zebrina) Details

Common name Inch Plant
Botanical name Tradescantia zebrina
Plant type Ground Cover
Hardiness zone 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b, 11a, 11b, 12a, 12b
Growth rate Fast
Height 0 ft. 6 in. - 0 ft. 9 in.
Width 0 ft. 6 in. - 0 ft. 9 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Loam (Silt)
Flower color Purple/Lavender
Leaf color Gray/Silver