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Wandering Jew Plant Care: Complete Growing Guide for Tradescantia Zebrina (Inch Plant)

Wandering Jew plant care: complete growing guide for Tradescantia zebrina (inch plant)

When it comes to vigorous, colorful, and easy-to-grow hanging houseplants, there aren’t many that can compare to Tradescantia zebrina (known more commonly as wandering Jew—and I’ll touch on the history of that name below). Whether you’re a houseplant beginner or a veteran, most indoor gardeners have owned one of these potted plants at some point. 

Keep reading for everything you need to know about Tradescantia zebrina and growing this stunning houseplant in your own home.

Common name(sWandering jew*, wandering dude, inch plant, silver inch plant, (wandering) spiderwort
Scientific nameTradescantia zebrina, formerly Zebrina pendula
FamilyCommelinaceae
Height and spread9-inch height and unlimited spread
LightBright indirect
Soil typeHouseplant potting soil
WaterKeep lightly moist
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Close-up of wandering Jew plant leaves

About inch plants

Natural habitat

Tradescantia zebrina is a native of Central and South America, from Mexico down to Colombia, as well as the Caribbean. Here, it forms part of the undergrowth in lightly forested and often very moist areas. It can form very dense, wide mats thanks to its creeping growth pattern and ability to throw roots extremely quickly.

Unfortunately, its vigorous growth has also made Tradescantia zebrina an invasive plant in some regions. This includes Hawaii, Brazil, and Australia, where the species easily takes hold in moist, forested areas. As a 2019 study carried out in the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest notes, this is problematic due to the species choking out native plants.

Some of the above was caused by careless gardeners allowing bits of the plant to get into the wild, where they quickly root. If you’d like to grow spiderworts like this one in your garden, please make sure to dispose properly of any trimmings left after pruning! This also applies to zebrina’s popular cousins, like Tradescantia fluminensis, T. pallida, and T. spathacea.

Description

It’s not difficult to see why Tradescantia zebrina gained popularity as a houseplant. Wandering spiderwort plants (not to be confused with spider plants, another beginner-friendly species) are low-maintenance and grow just about anywhere.

Easy care and quick growth aside, spiderworts are also just very nice plants to look at. The pointed, oval leaves on thin, fleshy stems overlap slightly and are characterized by their zebra pattern in purple and silvery green. The leaf undersides are deep purple in color and the tiny, three-petaled flowers are bright pink.

Although this species is naturally a creeping plant, it’s often grown indoors in hanging planters. As long as the plant is provided with enough light, the foliage will be very dense and brightly colored, forming a spectacular waterfall that can reach more than 3 feet in length.

Naming

What’s in a name? In the case of common houseplants, sometimes a lot. Tradescantia zebrina is a classic houseplant (I found mention of it in a 1964 German book about houseplants, but it’s probably been around longer than that!) and among most English speakers, it has long been known as wandering Jew. This is probably a reference to the “wandering” nature of the plant, as it does have a creeping growth pattern.

The legend of the wandering Jew is hundreds of years old and is now commonly considered to be rooted in antisemitism. It describes a Jewish man cursed to walk the planet until the Second Coming because he taunted Jesus on his way to the cross. Because of this, the plant name has partly fallen out of fashion and has been the source of much debate in the plant world over the past few years. 

Some plant enthusiasts have embraced the alternative “wandering dude,” which I personally think is a great option.

“Inch plant” (houseplant enthusiasts don’t agree on whether this refers to the fact that it can grow an inch a day, or that you only need an inch of stem to propagate it), “spiderwort,” or “wandering spiderwort” are also popular alternatives, though these are common names for other Tradescantia varieties, such as Tradescantia Nanouk.

The best way to avoid any confusion is to just stick to the scientific name.

Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew) with bicolor (green and cream) leaves and pink flowers

Inch plant varieties

There are three subspecies of inch plant (wandering Jew): Tradescantia zebrina var. zebrina, var. flocculosa, and var. mollipila. Unsurprisingly, after it having been a popular houseplant for so many years, nurseries have also managed to create a whole bunch of cultivars through selective cultivation.

A few of the popular Tradescantia zebrina cultivars you may come across in your local plant store include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Tradescantia zebrina ‘Quadricolor’: Yep, as the name suggests, this one adds an extra color to the mix. The leaves are cream, pink-purple, light green, and dark green.
  • Tradescantia zebrina ‘Burgundy’: Characterized by its very dark purple coloration.
  • Tradescantia zebrina ‘Silver Plus’: Less purple, more shiny silver.
  • Tradescantia zebrina ‘Red Gem’: Less silver, more intense (light) purple.
  • Tradescantia zebrina ‘Purple Joy’: Less silver, more dark purple. 
  • Tradescantia zebrina ‘Tikal’: A rare, naturally occurring variety that collectors pay a pretty penny for.

Do keep in mind that most of these cultivars aren’t patented and the amount of mislabeling and variation within a cultivar are both huge. Just growing your wandering Jew in lower-light conditions can completely change the way it looks, so it’s not surprising that confusion sometimes reigns supreme.

Luckily, care is the same across all cultivars, so your best bet is to just enjoy your plant even if you’re not sure what Tradescantia variety you’re dealing with!

Where to buy wandering Jew plants:

Tradescantia zebrina (wandering Jew or inch plant) with deep purple, green, and cream foliage in a yellow container, shot against a blue background

Caring for an inch plant

Light and temperature

It’s important to provide your Tradescantia zebrina with enough light. It’s tempting to use plants to brighten up dark, shaded spots in your home, but that just doesn’t work with this one: It loses its dense growth pattern and beautiful coloration in low light.

To prevent your wandering dude plant from growing sparse and green, place it near a window that gets bright indirect light. Some full sun isn’t a problem either, but do make sure you acclimate it gradually to a higher light location.

Temperature-wise, this species is a lot hardier than many of the tender tropicals we like to grow in our homes (like Anthurium andraeanum and Begonia maculata). Wandering dude plants can handle a very wide range of temps, making it perfect for those chillier windowsills that your other plants may not appreciate. Room temperature is ideal, but anything between 50°F to 85°F will keep them happy.

Water and humidity

Your Tradescantia zebrina will appreciate lightly moist soil. You can water a bit more during the summer months, when the plant is actively growing and needs a lot of moisture, and less during winter, when soil tends to take significantly longer to dry. 

If you’re not sure whether it’s time to water your wandering Jew plant yet, you can always turn to the age-old trick of sticking a finger in the soil.

  • If it still feels damp, wait a little longer, until the first inch or two has dried. 
  • If it feels bone dry, you’ve waited too long; you may also see limp leaves on your plant at this point. It’ll bounce back, but not always without lasting damage. 
  • If the soil feels wet, you watered too much and need to keep an eye out for root rot.

As for humidity, given its rather wet natural habitat, wandering Jew does appreciate higher air moisture levels. The great thing is, though, that it doesn’t demand it. As long as you keep its soil lightly moist and the air isn’t extremely dry, your plant should do well.

Soil and planting

Wandering Jew is not fussy about its potting mixture at all. I’ve grown it in pure houseplant potting soil with no additives. If you do want to take things to the next level, you can add some perlite and/or peat moss, although this is really not a must. 

Most houseplant enthusiasts like to place their wandering Jew in a hanging planter so they can enjoy the look of the leaves cascading down. This is not a must, though. You can also emphasize the species’ creeping growth habit by filling up a large, shallow planter, growing it in a terrarium, or even keeping it in water on a semi-permanent basis.

Recommended products for wandering Jew plant care:

Fertilizing

Like most other houseplants, Tradescantia zebrina appreciates a bit of fertilizer during the growing season, which extends from spring to early fall. You can use a normal houseplant fertilizer according to the instructions on the bottle.

Don’t fertilize during the winter months unless your plant is growing well. It doesn’t need extra nutrients if it’s inactive.

Recommended fertilizers for wandering Jew plants:

Pruning 

There’s a good chance you’ll have to prune your Tradescantia zebrina regularly, because as I mentioned, this is a very quick grower. It also roots very easily, so any trimmings can be replanted! I’ll describe how to do this in the section on propagation below.

Aside from stem trimming, you can remove any dead leaves, which are bound to pop up from time to time in very dense plants like this species.

Dividing or repotting

Inch plants don’t grow by producing plantlets at their base like many other houseplants (such as spider plants) do. Instead, inch plants spread by rooting along the stems. This means that division is not really the way to go; keeping these plants manageable is usually done through pruning. You can shape your plant by pinching off any long, leggy stems to create a fuller appearance and control its spread.

You’ll notice that Tradescantia really doesn’t mind being a bit cramped in its planter. Still, it’s a good idea to provide your plant with some fresh soil every year or two by repotting it.

Close-up of pink flower on a tricolor wandering Jew (inch plant)

Propagating an inch plant

If you’ve never propagated a houseplant before, this is truly one of the best species to start with. It’s known for rooting extremely quickly in both water and soil, meaning it’s easy to fill endless planters to keep or give away.

All you need to propagate your Tradescantia zebrina is a pair of clean scissors. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Snip the ends off existing branches. An inch or two with a few leaves works best.
  2. Remove the leaves at the bottom so part of the stem is exposed.
  3. Place the cutting in a glass of water to root or plant it directly in soil. You can put cuttings back in the mother plant’s pot to give her a fuller appearance on top.
  4. It can take a little longer during the winter months, but the first roots should appear within a week or so. You can give soil cuttings a slight tug to verify they’ve rooted.
  5. Once the first signs of new foliage appear, you’ll know your propagation attempt has been a success! 
  6. If you propagated in water, you can leave the rooted cuttings in water almost indefinitely, although you can also pot them up in fresh soil.
Wandering jew (spiderwort) plant with green and silver leaves

Common questions about inch plant care

Sources
https://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/110354
https://www.hoytarboretum.org/racism-in-taxonomy-whats-in-a-name/
Chiba de Castro, W. A., Xavier, R. O., Garrido, F. H., Romero, J. H., Peres, C. K., & da Luz, R. C. (2019). Fraying around the edges: negative effects of the invasive Tradescantia zebrina Hort. ex Bosse (Commelinaceae) on tree regeneration in the Atlantic Forest under different competitive and environmental conditions. Journal of Plant Ecology, 12(4), 713-721.
Encke, F. (1964). Pflanzen fur Zimmer und Balkon; Auswahl, Pflege, Vermehrung.
About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring—all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

1 Comment

  • Sarah
    March 2, 2022 at 6:23 pm

    It seems counterproductive to talk about the problematic origin of the name wandering Jew, recommend multiple alternative names (including scientific), but then continue to call it wandering Jew in the rest of the article. If the name is anti-Semitic just set a good example and use a different name.

    Reply

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