Plant Sheet: Boat Lily (Tradescantia spathacea)

* Image sources: All images used in this post are from the author

The Boat Lily is surely one of the more special houseplants you can have given its stunning colors and versatility.

Tradescantia spathacea, also known as Boat Lily or Moses-in-the-Cradle, is a perennial tropical plant native to Southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Due to its widespread use as an ornamental plant, it has globally naturalized itself and grows almost anywhere.

As an indoor plant, it is not the easiest plant to care for, hence it is good to gain a little knowledge about where the Boat Lily comes from and what its main needs and characteristics are.

Origin and Natural Habitat of Tradescantia spathacea

Southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala are the natural habitat of Tradescantia spathacea. It has spread to many other regions on a global scale such as the Pacific Islands as well as Australia or even the Canary Islands because it has been widely kept as an ornamental plant.

In nature, these plants often appear in clusters and form densely populated colonies. They have immense capabilities to grow on whatever type of soil or ground there is as long as it is well-drained. These plants are also incredibly heat-resistant but don’t do well with any frosty temperatures (as you would expect from a tropical plant).

Tradescantia spathacea is commonly called Boat Lily, also called Moses-in-the-Cradle, Cradle Lily, or Oyster Plant. This plant got its various names because of its inflorescences which are sheltered in a leaf shell that looks like a boat, oyster, or cradle. Kept as a houseplant though, it will rarely if ever bloom.

Tip: Do you prefer indoor plants that bloom regularly? Then the Hoya carnosa is the plant for you! Find out more about its stunning wax-like flowers in my Hoya plant sheet right here!

The cradle-like flowers are also reflected in the plant’s Latin name: “Spathacea” stems from the Greek word “spaqh” symbolizing a blade. “Tradescantia” is named after John Tradescant who served as a gardener to the king of England in the 16th century.

The Boat Lily also has succulent capabilities and can be found growing as an epiphytic or semi-epiphytic plant on rocky cliffs, palm or tree trunks, and other grounds with almost no soil. Hence, when you keep it as a houseplant, it often grows into a kind of hanging plant like my Tradescantia did as you can see in the images. Unless you give it a trim each year to keep it more compact and shrub-like.

Their look is stunning which explains their popular use as ornamental plants. They have lance-shaped leaves with dark green stripes on top and a bright purple color underneath. The leaves seem to glimmer in the sunlight. In nature, they grow into small shrubs of about 0.3-0.5 meters (1 ft). The indoor variegations are much smaller with shorter, sometimes more oval-shaped leaves.

There are various Tradescantia species that we keep as houseplants. Another popular one is the Wandering Jew or Tradescantia zebrina. Most of these plant types are hybrids derived from crosses of natural species.

Brighten Up Tradescantia’s Day: Light and Water Requirements

As a plant used to the undergrowth of tropical forests, it does well in partial or full shade. You can try to place it even in full sun, though it does not always tolerate this as it can torch its leaves. I have had my Boat Lily in a spot with morning sun and it loves that spot.

It prefers high humidity and is used to frequent watering. Hence, water it regularly but sparingly in summer and much less in winter. In terms of water requirements, the Boat Lily may not be the easiest beginner plant to start with but once you have figured it out, there is not much additional care needed.

A Tradescantia’s Guide to Happiness: Care Tips

The beautiful bright pink hue is particularly strong in younger leaves. (Image source: author photo)

What is essential is to provide it with very well-draining soil to prevent root rot and other pests. Root rot is one of the very common mistakes when caring for Tradescantia spathacea and can weaken its overall resilience. Weak plants are more easily infested with pests such as mealy bugs, spider mites, or scale insects.

Reading Tip: Providing your plants with a well-draining soil mix is an easy DIY task anyone can do at home. Check out my post on how to create a good and well-draining soil mix with only a couple of ingredients!

Give your Boat Lily the occasional trim each spring if you want to keep it lush and compact. If you don’t trim it, it will grow leggier and turn into more of a hanging plant, like my plant did. I personally didn’t mind because I love hanging plants but it is definitely a matter of preference.

One more care tip to mention here is that the sap of its leaves can cause minor allergic reactions if it comes in contact with human skin or if your pets devour parts of the leaves. Though usually, you will not get in touch much at all with the sap and you or your pets would have to devour a whole lot of leaves to feel a bad effect. But it is still important to know, just in case.

How to Propagate Tradescantia spathacea

In nature, it propagates through seeds as well as vegetatively through any part of the plant touching the soil.

Kept as a houseplant, it is best propagated by letting cuttings or even just pieces of the roots regrow in either water or soil. Any tiny side branch the plant produces is a good fit for a cutting such as the one in the images below. It usually roots very easily within 2-3 weeks. The cuttings root in water or soil, both work well.

Tradescantia Superpowers

The Boat Lily is a habitat generalist: Once its seeds or even just parts of the plant touch the ground somewhere, they will germinate or regrow given even hazardous circumstances. It is a highly fast-growing and adaptive plant that shows up as a pioneer in the most uncommon areas.

Unfortunately, this adaptation superpower turns into a problem when the plant introduces itself to new habitats. Due to its wide use as an ornamental plant, the plant has been able to naturalize itself all around the world, becoming an invasive species. It covers the floor with its colonies, preventing the germination of other native plants.

Hence, as beautiful as it might be, it has also earned itself the reputation of being an environmental weed. Of course, we need to keep in mind that this invasive spread is mainly due to the human use of the Boat Lily as an outdoor decorative plant for gardens and yards.

It is difficult to take your eyes off this stunning play of colors and light. (Image source: author photo)

More About Plant Care

Top or Bottom Watering Houseplants?

When watering plants, most people use a standard watering can to water their plants’ soil. This is called top watering. Another way to water your plants is bottom watering where you bathe your plants in water for some hours and let them soak up water from the bottom.

Both methods have their pros and cons. Find out what the benefits of top and bottom watering are and when to use which method in my post.

Should You Mist Your Houseplants?

Some people are convinced that misting your houseplants adds to a more humid environment for your plants to thrive in. While misting certainly increases the humidity around your plants, it only does so for a very short amount of time. Given this temporary effect, is misting really beneficial?

Find out more in my post about why misting is more a myth than a best practice and how to mist your plants if you just can’t do without that misting habit!

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