April 20, 2013

Plant of the month: Tradescantia spathacea

Sometimes it's the people associated with a plant that make it dear to us.

When I was in college in Iowa, many years ago, I met an inspirational woman. The purpose of our introduction is unimportant here, but over the course of several months I visited her a few times. She was in her late 80s or early 90s, living alone, still gardening, cooking, and caring for her home and herself.

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The first time I visited this independent senior--let's call her Mrs. C--I noticed this unique green and purple houseplant, with little bracts loaded with white blooms. I asked her what it was called, and she said "Moses-in-the-Bulrushes." On subsequent visits during mild weather, her window boxes on the front of her house were stuffed full of the Moses plant. Because of my interest, she gave me a cutting of the plant in a pot.

Though I was a college student (and terrible at keeping houseplants alive), the Moses plant managed to survive. In fact, it was quite healthy and I gave cuttings to friends and family members, including my mom.

At this point, all of the credit goes to her, because my Moses plant died or was discarded somewhere along the way. Over the years, my mother--who has a green thumb with indoor and outdoor plants--always had a pot full of the Moses plant.

Fast-forward to March 2013.

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While visiting Mom in Florida last month, I noticed she had a Moses plant near a small fence in her front yard. Of course, this brought back memories of both Mom's house over the years, and Mrs. C.

After noticing the plant at Mom's place (and at Florida botanical gardens, where some of these photos were captured), I did a little research.

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The plant's Latin name is Tradescantia spathacea (synonym Rhoeo spathacea), according to the USDA plants database. Common names, in addition to Moses-in-the-Bulrushes, include Boatlily, Oysterplant, Men-in-a-Boat, and numerous variations of "Moses-in... ."

Here's where things get a little tricky. The Moses plant--native to Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, according to the Missouri Botanical Garden--is considered slightly invasive in parts of Florida and Louisiana. But it's a tropical plant and very sensitive to frost, so it doesn't survive as a perennial beyond zone 9.

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For those who do plant it outside--during the summer or as a year-round perennial--it grows well in full sun or part shade. It's low-maintenance, evergreen, and spreads one to two feet wide and about one foot in height.

One warning: Dogs, in particular, seem sensitive to the Moses plant, according to several sources. Plant owners report that their dogs developed skin irritations after rolling in it.

If you keep it away from your dog (maybe on a shelf or in a window box outside), it's an excellent decorative plant, based on the experiences of Mrs. C and Mom.

What happened to Mrs. C? Unfortunately, I lost touch with her after I graduated all those years ago, and she has since passed on. But the Moses plant, which my mother has nurtured all these years, will always remind me of these two special women.

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27 comments:

  1. Interesting . . . it is the first time I have seen this plant. It does seem to resemble aloe plants. Beautiful magenta purple color with the green. I enjoyed reading the connection between you, Mrs C and your mother, also my ears perked learning you went to "college in Iowa" . . .

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    1. Yes, it's unique, isn't it? Moses plants were growing all over the place in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico when we vacationed there a few years ago. Yes, I went to school in Des Moines. I see that you lived in Iowa for a while, too. Did you like it? School was great, but my heart was in Wisconsin.

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  2. What a wonderful, touching story. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, Christy. It's interesting how memories, people, and plants come and go in our lives, isn't it?

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  3. I love the stories behind plants. They all have stories they just need to be told. The leaves remind me a little of the purple heart plant but the growth form is completely different.

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    1. Yes, I agree. Most of my other plants have stories, too. It was just such an unusual encounter that a college student and an independent widow would become friends. So, I had a special place in my heart for Mrs. C. The Moses plant is unique, isn't it?

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  4. These are the best plants Beth. Those with wonderful stories and wonderful people. My mom had tons of houseplants and this was one I remember. Thanks for bringing back the wonderful memory for me!

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    1. I agree, Donna. Among houseplants, it's any easy one to grow. If I didn't have cats, or if I did have a sunny window away from the cats, I'd ask Mom for a start again. It does have some special memories.

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  5. Nice to have a person with which to associate favorite plants

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    1. Yes, it's funny how some plant stories (and memories of special people) stick with us for an entire lifetime.

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  6. I enjoyed your story of the plant and the people. It really is pretty often that plants remind us of people who passed them on to us, but rarely do we share the stories. A lot of plants find their way to new gardens this way, sometimes even crossing state lines.

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    1. Yes, I have lots of outdoor plants from special people, but this houseplant--for some reason--brings a different type of memory for me. Maybe because this woman was part of my life for such a short time during an impressionable stage.

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  7. I love when plants remind us of people. So glad your mother still had the Moses plant, and so you can get a cutting. I just love that purple!

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    1. Yeah, the purple and green bicolor leaves are attractive, aren't they? The little white flowers are fascinating, too.

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  8. a lovely story, I love stories that tell of the relationship between people and plants.

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    1. Thanks! It just seemed like a natural for "plant of the month" this time. :)

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  9. What a great plant memory, and a wonderful way to remember it.

    It's a pretty hardy plant indoors...anything that can survive a college student is doing well.

    Jen

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    1. True (re: college student)! When I think back, it amazes me even more. Thanks, Jen.

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  10. Very colorful and great memories to share.

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    1. Yeah, it's a unique plant, and the people I associate with it are special, too!

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  11. What wonderful memories this plant holds for you! I do love the purple tinges of its leaves.

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    1. It's an easy houseplant, too. If I didn't have cats, I'd have one in my house. ;-)

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  12. Nice story. Must pick up a few for containers.

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  13. Yes, this is a nice story. I'm thinking I used to have one of these as a house plant many years ago, when I had lots of house plants, and little garden space.

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  14. What a lovely story :-)
    It is great when plants and flowers connect people, I have a story behind many of my plants, and I remember where and when I got, bought or took (asked for permission first!) every plant I have in my garden :-)
    Not sure if the Moses plant is for me, I don't think it would like our new trend arctic winters here in London, and indoors my few window sills are already taken by my orchids. But it sure was an interesting plant, wish I could grow it :-)

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  15. I just planted one in the container I posted about but as I was researching Tradescantia I learned it was highly invasive in the southeast?? Have you heard that too? At least we don't have to worry about that here in the cold west tho!!! I usually confine them to containers anyway.
    I love the connections we get through plants. I have passalongs from beloved people too. I always think of them when I seeing their starts growing in my house/garden. Great post!!!!

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  16. I love plants with a story to them. I have a fuchsia in a pot in the back garden waiting to go in the ground, it is special because I remember playing under it as a small child when we visited my Nan. She gave cuttings to my Mum, who in turn gave cuttings to me.

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