Tradescantia pallida

purple heart


Tradescantia pallida

(Rose) D.R.Hunt 1975

pronounced: trad-ess-KAN-tee-uh PAL-lid-uh

(Commelinaceae — the wandering Jew family)

synonym — Setcreasea pallida

Rose 1907

pronounced: set-kree-AYE-see-uh PAL-lid-uh

synonym — Setcreasea purpurea

Boom 1955

pronounced: set-kree-AYE-see-uh per-PEW-re-uh

common names: purple heart, wandering Jew

Tradescantia is named for 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. Pallida is from the Latin pallidus, pale, or pallid. There is some controversy over the scientific name for this plant species, some authorities still insisting on using the synonyms. The common name ‘Wandering Jew’ is shared with the closely related species Tradescantia fluminensis and Tradescantia zebrina. The name comes from mediaeval Christian folklore of about the 13th century, and refers to a Jew who allegedly taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth till the Second Coming. The figure of the doomed sinner, forced to wander without the hope of rest in death until Christ’s second coming, impressed itself upon the mediaeval imagination, especially bringing to mind the seeming immortality of the Jewish people wandering across Europe at the time. Both the immortal and the wandering aspects of the legend are reflected in the names given to the central figure: Der Ewige Jude (the eternal Jew) in German, and Le Juif Errant (the wandering Jew) in French and English. In Spanish he has both: El Judio Errante (the wandering Jew) and Juan el que Espera a Dios (John who waits for God). There have been claims of sightings of the Wandering Jew throughout Europe and North America over the centuries; and he is referred to many times in literature, ranging from The Pardoner’s Tale, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales of the 14th century, right up to the present day, in the literature of most European countries, and latterly of Latin America.

In botanical use, presumably the name refers to the spreading nature of the plants. I find it interesting that another well-known member of this species, Tradescantia spathaca, also has a common name with biblical connotations: ‘Moses-in-the-Cradle’.

This is an evergreen perennial plant of scrambling nature native to the Gulf Coast region of Mexico. It is distinguished by elongated, pointed leaves – a glaucous green, fringed with red or purple – and bearing small sterile 3-petaled flowers of white, pink or purple. Widely used as an ornamental plant in gardens and borders, as a ground cover, hanging plant, or (particularly in colder climates where it cannot survive the winter in the garden) as a houseplant, it is easily propagated by cuttings: the stems are visibly segmented, and roots will frequently grow from the joints. This characteristic, together with the fact that it is remarkably shade-tolerant and can thrive in a wide range of soil conditions, can make it a very invasive plant when it gets out of hand. In areas of southern USA and in parts of Australia it is considered an invasive weed and has defied many attempts at control or eradication. As a houseplant, it has been judged exceptionally effective at improving indoor air quality by filtering out Volatile Organic Compounds, a class of common pollutants and respiratory irritants.

The lanceolate leaves of the plant, purple in full sun, will reach about 17 cm in length by about 2.5 cm in width, and are covered with pale hairs. The fleshy stems are at first erect, later lying on the ground as a creeping herb, around 40 cm long.


Photographs taken at Nelly Bay 2011, 2013
Page last updated 22nd April 2019