Plant Sheet: Zebra Plant (Tradescantia zebrina)

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

This colorful, striped plant is a common guest among houseplants. Quite understandable, given its stunning looks!

Tradescantia zebrina, indigenous to Central and South American forest ecosystems, exhibits a preference for bright indirect light and intermittently moistened substrate. Its foliage captivates with its vivid purple hue adorned with silver stripes and a magenta underside.

If you have this plant at home or are planning to add this plant type to your indoor jungle, it is always good to know a little bit about your housemate’s background, needs, and superpowers you didn’t know of. Enjoy reading!

Origin and Natural Habitat of Tradescantia zebrina

The Tradescantia zebrina is also commonly called the Zebra Plant, Inch Plant, or the Wandering Jew. It is native to Southern and Central America, mainly Guatemala, Southern Mexico, and Colombia, as well as parts of the Caribbean.

As a trailing and crawling plant, it naturally grows in open woodlands, in half-shade along riversides, or in any disturbed areas such as on wastelands or along the roadside. With its superb ability to propagate from even tiny root segments, it has renaturalized itself in many regions where it was used as an ornamental outdoor plant.

The silvery stripes on the leaf surface explain why it is called Zebra Plant. The oval-shaped leaves have an underside of a striking magenta while the surface is of a dark green hue with silver stripes on them. With varying light conditions, the saturation of the green color of the leaves varies.

There are various cultivars of the Zebra Plant, some come with a stronger purple hue on the leaf surface while others are mainly green on top.

Tip: Many members of the Tradescantia family are common houseplants. Check out the plant sheets of the Tradescantia pallida (Purple Queen Plant) and of the Tradescantia spathacea (Boat Lily)!

Brighten Up Zebra Plant’s Day: Light and Water Requirements

As a plant growing on forest floors, the Zebra Plant is not used to harsh direct sunlight but rather grows protected in the shadows of larger trees around it. Bright indirect light or even half-shade is best for this plant type. While it can deal with soft afternoon or morning sun, keep it out of the strong midday sun to prevent scorching its leaves.

Tip: What counts as direct and what as indirect light? What spots in your home typically have which type of light? Find out in my post about light conditions for plants linked right here!

Water this plant only once the top inches of soil have dried. Stick your finger into the soil to find out whether it’s dry or moist. Once the upper inches of the soil are dry, give it a good rinse. Always make sure to empty out excess water about 15 minutes after watering.

Looking for more tips on how to water houseplants correctly to prevent overwatering? Then this complete houseplant watering guide will be a good read for you!

A Zebra Plant’s Guide to Happiness: Care Tips

The leaf color changes depending on how much light it gets. If the Tradescantia zebrina is exposed to harsh sunlight, the colors will wash out and the leaves will loose much of their stunning looks. If the plant doesn’t get enough light, the leaves turn more green than purple.

Keep the plant in a spot that suits its light needs to get clear silvery stripes and that special purple hue of the leaves.

Another care tip to keep in mind with this plant is to avoid misting this plant. If you look closely, the rims of the leaves are covered with fine hair. Misting the plant can damage the hair and irritate the plant. However, the Zebra Plant loves humidity. Raise the humidity levels in your home with a humidifier, especially in wintertime!

Tip: Misting isn’t a lasting solution to raise the humidity levels indoors. Find out here what methods for more humidity are way more effective and help your plants stay healthy during winter when our heating dries out the air indoors!

Even though the Tradescantia zebrina is a rather undemanding plant, growing well in almost any household, it can be affected by thrips. This is a type of bug that sucks the leaves dry, causing the whole plant to die off. I have had this pest on my Zebra Plants before and they are very hard to get rid off because they kill a plant super fast.

The best way to avoid getting thrips is making sure you always buy good quality soil when repotting or you even check that the bough soil is sterilized. Another main prevention method is to keep the humidity levels up throughout the year.

How to Propagate Tradescantia zebrina

The Zebra Plant is very easy to propagate. Take some stem cuttings, making sure you include some of the axial joints, and place the in water to root. Cut off any leaves that are submerged in water, otherwise they might start to rot.

Use a sharp knife or blade to cut the stems, not scissors. Scissors can squash the fragile transportation vessels inside the stems.

It takes about 2-3 weeks until new roots appear. As soon as a small root ball has formed, you can pot it into fresh, well-draining soil.

Tip: Cutting some stems off is also a great way to trim your plant every now and then. Trimming promotes the growth of new stems and gives your Tradescantia a bushier growth (instead of growing leggy, long stems).

When taking stem cuttings, always cut them closer to the main plant, including several axial joints. (Image source: author photo)

Zebra Plant Superpowers

This member of the Tradescantia family is also endowed with medicinal benefits. About 80 Tradescantia types have until now been found to contain compounds that are beneficial to our health as many scientific studies show.

“Phytochemical compounds (from various species of the genus) such as coumarins, alkaloids, saponins, flavonoids, phenolics, tannins, steroids and terpenoids have recently been characterized and described with antioxidant, cytotoxic, anti-inflammatory, anticancer or antimicrobial properties.”

Butnariu et al. Review on Tradescantia: Phytochemical Constituents, Biological Activities and Health-Promoting Effects. Front. Biosci. (Landmark Ed) 2022, 27(6), 197.

In South America, its leaf extract has been used for traditional medicinal purposes for centuries due to its antioxidant and antibacterial activity, helping with gastrointestinal issues among others.

More About Plant Care

How to Water Houseplants When Away?

Every plant parent will eventually go on holiday. What to do about the green housemates you leave behind? For up to one week of holiday, there is usually nothing to worry about. For any longer period, it is best to take some action and make sure your indoor plants stay hydrated while you are away.

Read more about the best methods of watering houseplants when away in my post linked here. You might be surprised that there are quite simple but effective watering systems that won’t cause you much work to implement.

What Counts As Direct And Indirect Light?

When bringing a new plant home, the plant labels from the store often don’t give much more information about that plant’s need in terms of light other than sun, half-shade, and shade. Sun is considered direct light while shade is indirect light.

How do you find out how much light a spot in your home gets and what counts as direct or indirect light? In my post about this topic, I explain what makes light direct or indirect and what spots in your home have which type of light.

Enjoy reading!

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