Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Resplendent Purple Queen

Plant names often contain emotional suggestions - reasonable enough since plants are named by impassioned beings.  So it is with Wandering Jew.  Known botanically as Tradescantia pallida (pronounced "trad-es-KAN-tee-uh PAL-lid-uh), the genus is named in honor of one or both of the John Tradescants.  Father and son, they were naturalists, botanists, gardeners and plant collectors.  It's very likely that the elder Tradescant (d. 1638) was considered when the genus was named.

Both Tradescants knew tragedy during their careers.  The elder was gardener to the 1st Duke of Buckingham, until the duke's assassination.  He was then employed by Charles I, king of England.  When the elder died, John the younger succeeded his father in service to Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria until the Queen fled because of England's Civil War.

The genus contains over 70 species,  3 of which are commonly called "Wandering Jew."  These species, including T. pallida, are trailing succulent plants that set down roots where the nodes touch soil.  As the plants progress, they form extensive ground covers.  That habit undoubtedly reminded someone of the Jewish diaspora or a doleful medieval legend, so the name connoting tragedy was bestowed.  The appellation continues to stir passions.

Tradescantia pallida also bears other common names: Purple Heart, Purple Queen.  Both hint at sadness.

Purple Queen is a fairly common plant in warm climates and often grown indoors in colder ones.  It's native to Mexico near the Gulf coast.  The species name, pallida, means pale.  But pale it is not, and there is nothing sad about it.  Succulent trailing stems and thick, juicy, purple leaves store up water for emergencies.  Pink flowers are produced throughout the growing season.

The plant grows quickly up to 18" high in full sun or partial shade and in almost any soil type as long as it is well-drained.  Each plant spreads about 12", but as it roots along the stem, the area covered may be much greater.  Because it is drought-tolerant, T. pallida is well-suited as a ground cover in dry areas, so is ideal for xeriscaping.

A ground cover of Purple Queen is rich in appearance, like a royal robe laid out.  It's also good for container gardening and hanging baskets, especially when accompanied by suitable companion plants of varying heights, textures and complementary colors, such as red, pink, white, yellow and green.

In addition to outdoor uses, it is also great for growing indoors.  In fact, Purple Queen is considered to be exceptionally effective in removing pollutants from the air.  Grow a few plants in a sunny window and breathe easier!

Purple Queen is hardy from USDA climate zone 7 through 11.  Frost may destroy the top-growth, but the plants revive when warm weather returns.  Recommended pH ranges from 5.5 to 7.5.  Space about 12" to 18" apart.

Resplendent, easy to grow and simple to maintain, you'll be quite happy to have Purple Queen in your colorful garden.

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