How to propagate Tradescantia - Plantsmith
Propagating tradescantia in water

How to propagate Tradescantia

Tradescantia zebrina, also known as silver inch plant or spiderwort, is a variegated herbaceous perennial with fleshy stems and slightly succulent leaves. Evergreen foliage is periodically punctuated with tiny pink flowers on the stem tips. As houseplants they are perfect for suspending in a macrame plant hanger or trailing from a shelf as their stems cascade out of pots but in their native habitat they actually spread along the soil, making good groundcover, earning them their reputation for wandering.

Find out everything you need to know about caring for Tradescantia zebrina in our Houseplant of the Month feature.

There are many varieties of tradescantia but the most common is the classic zebrina species with green and purple foliage with silver stripes. Another fairly common tradescantia is the green leaved Tradescantia fluminensis ‘Quicksilver’ which can be cared for in the same way as T. zebrina but just has larger leaves.

Tradescantia’s sprawling tendency means over time stems elongate away from the base forming lovely fresh new foliage at the tips but leaving the rooted end sparse and covered in crispy old leaves. So how do you remedy this unsightly growing habit? Propagate!

Tradescantia zebrina
Propagating tradescantia is the perfect remedy when the leaves near the base go dry and crispy. Image: Debi Holland

Propagating Tradescantia is very easy. In fact it is a great project to do with kids as they will see results fairly quickly – in plant time scales anyway. 

Propagate by water

By far the quickest and easiest way to propagate tradescantia is in water. Take your sprawling tradescantia and snip off the stems tips to about 10cm in length below a node. A node is the joint where the leaves grow from the stem.

Carefully remove all the lower leaves. You can cut them off with a sharp pair of snips or simply nip them off by hand. If you have sharp fingers nails they will come in handy now; pinch leaves off with your thumb and fore finger.

Propagating tradescantia
Carefully remove all the lower leaves of your cuttings. Image: Debi Holland

Why remove leaves? One word – transpiration. This is essentially the plant sweating, releasing water via stomata on their leaves to stay cool. The stomata are like windows opening and closing to regulate moisture; retaining and releasing water.

Removing the excess leaves reduces the amount of water lost before new roots are formed giving cuttings the best chance of survival. You can also cut the remaining leaves in half; this will further reduce excessive water loss but if the leaves are small then it is not essential.

Deciding which type of water to use can be a confusing topic but use what is readily available to you. Tap water, rain or distilled will all provide the houseplants with what they need to grow. Distilled water is an unnecessary expense and results in packaging to be recycled, rainwater on the other hand is free, can be collected packaging-free at home and has less chemicals than tap which can contain a trace cocktail of chlorine and fluoride to name a few. Minerals can build up in houseplant soil but for short term propagation tap, rain or distilled is fine.

Place the cuttings in a glass jar of tepid water and wait. Even impatient gardeners will be surprised how quickly roots form. You will probably notice them appearing within a week. Replace the water every few days. For now this little glass jar is your cutting’s life support machine so replacing with fresh water will replenish the oxygen in the water and get rid of any build up of algae keeping roots healthy. Wait until you have a solid jar of roots. This tangled white mass can be really impressive, as if by magic appearing from the cut stems.

tradescantia cuttings in water
New roots will soon start to form on the cuttings. Image: Debi Holland

Place your rooted cuttings in a pot of gritty peat-free compost and you have a new plant for free.

Your new plant will have fresh succulent leaves reaching down to the base and should be compact and bushy. Pop it back on the shelf to pamper, admire and enjoy. Congratulate yourself on a job well done! Repeat the process when your Tradescantia stems once again become straggly.

Propagate in soil

You can also propagate tradescantia straight into a small pot of peat-free compost. Use a pencil as a dibber to make holes and insert your cuttings into the soil. Concentrate the cuttings near the centre of the pot, this should help create an evenly shaped, bushy plant as it grows from the centre out. Keep the pot moist but not soggy or the stems may rot. Regular misting will help to keep the cuttings hydrated.

tradescantia zebrina
Tha natural habit of tradescantia is for stems to spread along the soil. Image: Debi Holland

Propagate by layering

For an alternative propagation method why not give layering a go? Drape long stems over a separate pot of compost and secure the stem with a stone or pin. Over time this stem will develop roots where it makes contact with the soil. To test if roots have formed gently tug on the stem, if you feel resistance then roots are laying foundations in their new home but if the stem moves easily then leave well alone for another week or so. Once established you can cut the stem off from the parent plant and you have a completely independent baby plant.

Propagating is immensely satisfy and a great way to minimalise cost and impact on the planet by growing your own. Swap houseplants with friends or give as gifts.

Just be aware that some people may find tradescantia sap irritating to their skin so consider wearing gloves.

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