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Plant Highlight: Tradescantia pallida

September 2007

Gardeners are always appreciative of plants with strikingly-colored foliage, since they lend vivid hues to the garden even when flowers are not present.  For rich purple foliage, few plant selections can equal Tradescantia pallida ‘Purple Heart’, which also goes by the name of Setcreasea purpurea.  The species comes from northeast Mexico, and it has forms with green leaves and pale flowers which are tinged with violet, but the cultivar ‘Purple Heart’ has leaves which are completely purple and flowers of a bright violet-magenta color.

Plants in the genus Tradescantia occur in both North and South America, and many of them are tropical or subtropical, but a few can be found all the way up to the northern parts of the U.S.  These plants belong to the family Commelinaceae, also known as the Spiderwort Family or the Wandering-Jew Family.  This family of non-woody monocots is widely distributed, especially in tropical regions.  Many are used as ornamentals, including an assortment of ground covers.  Like all family members, Tradescantia species have 3-petaled flowers.

Because of its subtropical origins, T. pallida dies back when the weather turns cold, but happily it re-sprouts and quickly fills back in once warm weather returns in the spring.  Its leaves are up to an inch (2½ mm) wide and up to 7 inches (18 mm) long, with their bases clasping the succulent stems.  Multiple stems sprout from the base, sprawling in all directions to create a dense mat of purple about a foot (30 mm) high.  The flowers are not large, usually less than an inch in diameter (about 2 mm), but their violet-magenta color makes them quite attractive.