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Tradescantia spathacea Sw. 1788
pronounced: trad-ess-KAN-tee-uh spath-ay-SEE-uh
(Commelinaceae – the Wandering Jew family)
synonym: Rhoeo spathacea (Sw.) Stearn 1957
pronounced: ROH-ee-oh spath-ay-SEE-uh
common name: Moses-in-the-Cradle
Tradescantia was named after one (or perhaps both) of the father-and-son team John Tradescant the elder (c. 1570–1638) and John Tradescant the younger (1608–1662). They were gardeners, importers of exotic plants, and collectors of curiosities. They supervised the laying out of some of the great English gardens of the period, and were responsible for introducing many new plants into the country. They had their own Botanic Gardens in South Lambeth, and their own museum, named The Ark, which was the first public museum in the UK. Their collection subsequently became the basis of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Rhoeo, a daughter of Staphylus (one of the Argonauts) and Chrysothemis, became pregnant by the God Apollo. Staphylus, believing someone else was the father, locked her up in a chest and threw her into the sea. The chest was washed up on the coast of Delos, where she gave birth to a son, Anius. She placed the child on the altar of Apollo, praying that the god, if he were the father, should save the child. Apollo accordingly concealed the boy, and taught him the art of prophecy. Spathacea is from the Greek σπαθη (spathé), a blade.
Moses-in-the-Cradle is a plant that suffers from an identity crisis. It was known for many years as Rhoeo discolor, then it became Rhoeo spathacea, and now it is called Tradescantia spathacea. It is a short-stemmed clumping perennial from southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, and has rosettes of broadly speared leaves, 15–30 cm long, dark green above and purple below, arising from a trunk-like stem. It is a really hardy plant that grows in full sun or partial shade, and all it asks for is well-drained soil. Fungus, root rot and leaf spot are likely to occur under irrigation or water-logged conditions.
The unusual flowers, borne down among the leaves, appear as clusters of tiny white flowers nestled between two boat-shaped purplish bracts. The flowers have 3 petals, 6 stamens; the ovary is 3-celled, each cell having one ovule. The fruit is a 3-valved capsule, and the seeds are wrinkled. There are several cultivars available, including ‘Concolor’ with all-green leaves, and ‘Vittata’ with leaves striped in red and yellow-green. The plants can flower at any time of the year, and are pollinated by insects, or self-pollinated. The seeds are apparently wind-dispersed, and the plant turns up growing in all sorts of odd places, even as an epiphyte on city buildings!
The plant has been widely exported to tropical and sub-tropical regions, and has in places (including Florida) escaped cultivation and become firmly established, and invasive. It can reproduce by seeds, cuttings and discarded plants. Broken pieces will easily resprout. It can create a dense ground cover that prevents native plants from germinating on the forest floor.
Contact with the sap may cause brief stinging and itching. with reddening of the skin. The plant grows commonly around ancient Mayan sites in central America, and it is thought to have been cultivated by these people for use as a cosmetic, for reddening the cheeks. Ingestion of any parts of the plant results in severe burning pain in the mouth and throat.
There are many plantings of Moses-in-the-Cradle on Magnetic Island.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010, 2012
Page last updated 3rd March 2017