Moses-in-the-Cradle (Tradescantia spathacea)

Boat Lily, Moses in a Basket, Moses-in-the-Cradle, Oyster Plant

Tradescantia Spathacea, the Moses in the Cradle plant, is a herbaceous perennial plant native to Mexico that’s commonly grown as a houseplant. This low-maintenance tropical is the perfect way to bring some colorful foliage into your home. The long green and purple leaves are a beautiful contrast to the greenery of other popular houseplants. And as a bonus, Tradescantia Spathacea is very low maintenance and easy to grow.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Tradescantia spathacea, also called the oyster plant, boatlily or ‘Moses-in-the-cradle’, is an herb in the Commelinaceae family which was first described in 1788. It is native to Belize, Guatemala, and southern México (Chiapas, Tabasco, and the Yucatán Peninsula) and is widely cultivated as an ornamental houseplant; it has become naturalized in parts of coastal Southern California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Texas, and various Pacific and Indian Ocean islands.

Tradescantia spathacea has fleshy rhizomes and rosettes of waxy lance-shaped leaves. Leaves are dark to metallic green above, with glossy purple underneath. These will reach up to 0.30 m (1 ft) long by 76 mm (3 in) wide. They are foliage plants that reach a height of around 0.30 m (1 ft). They are hardy in USDA zones 9-12 and are also grown as ornamental houseplants. Its cultivar ‘Sitara’ has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Tradescantia spathacea has naturalized in Florida and Louisiana and is listed as a Category II invasive exotic species by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council. “This means Invasive exotics that have increased in abundance or frequency but have not yet altered Florida plant communities to the extent shown by Category I species. These species may become ranked Category I if ecological damage is demonstrated.”

Tradescantia spathacea is toxic to humans and animals. Because its toxicity is caused by the calcium oxalate crystals found in all parts of the plant, you should treat it with caution if you share your space with children or animals.

II. How to Grow and Care

Tradescantia spathacea originates in the hot and humid rainforests of Central America, and you need to provide the essentials of that environment for your Moses in the Cradle plant care.

The main things to focus on for good Tradescantia spathacea care are warm temperatures, high humidity, moist soil, and bright but indirect light.

Sunlight

While Tradescantia spathacea grows in the dappled shade of the tree canopy in its native Central American rainforests, the sunlight that is being filtered is very hot and bright.

So, while your Moses in the Cradle won’t handle full sun, Tradescantia spathacea light needs are still for bright but indirect light. That’s between 10,000 and 20,000 lux.

Your Moses in the Cradle light requirements are best met with a spot on an east or north-facing window ledge, where they will get lots of morning light.

If you have to grow it in a room with a south or west exposure, place it where the direct rays of the sun can’t touch it.

You can also use a grow light if you don’t have a bright enough location.

Temperature 

In the rainforests where Tradescantia spathacea originates, it’s hot. Average daytime highs range from 84 to 91ºF (29 to 33ºC), and lows go from 68 to 79ºF (20 to 26ºC).

The recommended Moses in the Cradle temperature range is 65 to 86ºF (18 to 30ºC). 

You should be able to provide a suitable temperature for Tradescantia spathacea in any living space. 

Of course, you won’t want to keep your home as hot as the top end of that range. However, in the hot summer you can move your Tradescantia spathacea outside to a shady spot.

Your biggest concern indoors should be keeping it out of drafts and away from cold windows in winter, as it doesn’t have much temperature tolerance below 55ºF (13ºC). 

Never let it freeze, as it has no frost hardiness.

Humidity 

The rainforests of Central America have 80 to 90% humidity all year long.

In your home, the ideal humidity for Tradescantia spathacea is around 70%, but you can start by trying your Tradescantia spathacea out at a normal indoor humidity level of around 40%.

However, if you start to see brown tips on the leaves, you will need to create a moist microclimate to satisfy your Moses in the Cradle humidity requirements.

You could put your Tradescantia spathacea in a bathroom, or group all your plants together and set the pots on wet pebble trays. 

Misting is not usually recommended as the foliage should not get wet.

In the long run, getting a small humidifier to keep all your humidity-loving plants happy is the best solution.

Watering

In its native habitat, Tradescantia spathacea gets a lot of rain in summer and fall, and very little in winter. In late winter and early spring, it may only rain once a week, while September sees rain every other day.

You should follow this seasonal variation when for your Moses in the Cradle watering. In spring, summer, and fall, water Tradescantia spathacea whenever the top inch of soil dries out.

However, its watering needs change in winter, when it is not actively growing and the soil can dry out more between waterings. 

If you water too often you run the risk of your Tradescantia spathacea developing root rot.

Soil

The soil on the rainforest floor is loose and porous, with plenty of decaying organic matter, and your Moses in the Cradle soil should have a similar structure.

While it will not tolerate wet soil, it does require consistent moisture. It also needs a soil that both drains well and lets the roots breathe. 

The recommended pH level for Tradescantia spathacea is 5 to 6, or acidic.

You can use commonly available ingredients to make your own soil for Tradescantia spathacea.

Use equal parts of peat moss, perlite, and potting soil or compost for a good soil mix to support healthy growth.

Fertilizing

You should use a moderate amount of Moses in the Cradle fertilizer, but don’t overdo it.

Use a standard indoor houseplant liquid fertilizer for Tradescantia spathacea with a balanced fertilizer ratio of 10-10-10.

Dilute it to half strength and pour it slowly and evenly over the soil surface right after you’ve watered, no more than once a month.

Only apply fertilizer in spring and summer when your Tradescantia spathacea is actively growing.

If you see a build-up of fertilizer salts on the soil surface, flush the soil by running a gentle stream of water through it for several minutes, and then wait at least a month before using more fertilizer.

Pruning

The only really necessary Moses in the Cradle pruning is to trim off dead or damaged leaves. They can harbor pests or disease, and make your Tradescantia spathacea look untidy.

However, you can also prune it every spring to produce a bushier shape. Indoors, do not remove more than a tenth of its foliage in any one growing season. Pinch the growing tips to encourage it to branch out rather than up.

On the other hand, you can cut back a Tradescantia spathacea growing outdoors to within a few inches of the soil surface.

When cutting Tradescantia spathacea, use sharp, sterilized shears to prevent the spread of disease.

Propagation

If you want to reproduce the oyster plant, there are two main ways. Oyster plant propagation is as follows:

Oyster plant reproduction by cuttings: a healthy plant is chosen and cut by the stem, then placed in a jar with water or directly on the ground. The tools that are used to cut must be previously washed and disinfected, this is to avoid the development of fungi both in the mother plant and in the cutting. After placing it in water, it must be transferred to a solid substrate once it has developed roots, so that it has enough nutrients to continue growing. When placing the plant in the substrate, it is necessary to water it abundantly.

Oyster plant reproduction by division: since clusters are formed from a single plant. To do this, the cluster of various stems is completely unearthed, to separate them at the root and replant the two new plants. It is necessary to water abundantly during the phase of establishment of the new plant in the substrate.

Potting and Repotting 

Pot oyster plants in a container that is slightly larger than their root ball. The container should have ample drainage holes. The root system on these plants can get quite dense, so repotting is necessary every two years or so. Choose a slightly larger container, and repot the plant in fresh potting mix. Water it well after transplanting, then return to your normal watering schedule.

Pests and Diseases

  • Common Pests 

Scale, mealybugs, spider mites, and whitefly are common pests affecting Tradescantia spathacea. Each of these pests sucks the sap from your plant’s leaves. However, you can easily prevent and treat them with a couple of methods. You can deter these pests by properly caring for your plant, ensuring it’s watered correctly, is receiving enough sunlight, and is fertilized correctly. That said, every once in a while a pest crops up and must be dealt with.

If your plant already has an infestation of one of these pests, quarantine your plant, so the pests don’t spread to your other plants. Then, use a gentle organic insecticide spray such as insecticidal soap, neem oil, or a specialty product to eradicate the pests. Most organic sprays can be reapplied on a regular basis to ensure the eradication of pests.

  • Common Diseases 

Tradescantia spathacea is a relatively hardy plant that isn’t affected by any significant diseases. However, overwatering can lead to root rot. Root rot starts when roots are wet and can lead to floppy stems and leaves and an unhealthy-looking plant. This is why it’s important not to overwater your plant and let the water drain thoroughly from the bottom to ensure the roots aren’t sitting in water. 

If your plant appears to be suffering from root rot, first move the plant into an area with bright indirect light and excellent air circulation. If the plant looks particularly bad, take it out of the pot, clean the pot, and repot it into the fresh clean dry potting mix. Let the plant air out for a few days before watering. During the first watering, double-check to make sure excess water drains freely out of the bottom of the pot. Allow the pot to drain fully in the sink before placing it back in a bright location with adequate air movement.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Ornamental uses

It is cultivated as a garden ornamental. It is often grown as a ground cover in mild climates, mainly for its colourful foliage. In temperate regions, it is commonly cultivated as a houseplant for its attractive foliage.

In climates where the boat lily is hardy, it makes an excellent ground cover or addition to your rock garden. It also does well in containers and hanging baskets that can be brought indoors during the winter or kept indoors throughout the year.

  • Medicinal uses

Tradescantia spathacea is in traditional medicine. The flowers and leaves are used to treat cancer, superficial mycoses, coughs, colds, and dysentery. It has been reported to possess antimicrobial, insecticidal, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and anti-fertility activities

A decoction of dried or fresh leaves used for a cough, colds, hemoptysis, whooping cough, nose bleed.

Moses-in-the-Cradle (Tradescantia spathacea) Details

Common name Boat Lily, Moses in a Basket, Moses-in-the-Cradle, Oyster Plant
Botanical name Tradescantia spathacea
Plant type Ground Cover
Hardiness zone 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b, 11a, 11b
Height 0 ft. 6 in. - 1 ft. 0 in.
Width 0 ft. 6 in. - 1 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Loam (Silt)
Flower color White
Leaf color Cream/Tan