I first saw Purple Heart (Tradescantia pallida) during a spring garden tour a couple of years ago. Planted at the base of the lime green trunks of several Palo Brea trees, the plants were stunning. The fact I hadn’t seen Purple Heart in a garden before should have provided a hint to me—usually if something grows well here, you will find it in every garden. Even though I only saw it at that one garden, I was determined to get some. I figured it would look great with my yellow Lantana or under the Palo Verde trees.
Then, a couple of weeks later, I saw a huge urn in front of a restaurant in full bloom with Purple Heart, its lush stems spilling over the sides to the sidewalk. That was it. I immediately drove to a nursery to acquire some. The woman at the nursery said if I wanted Purple Heart, I should come back the next day and she would have some free cuttings from her yard, so I did just that, and left with a huge bagful.
Although familiar with Purple Heart as a houseplant (usually Tradescantia zebrina), I did some research on the garden version and discovered a downside. It is invasive and tough to control once established, so I decided to place the plants in a wok planter. I just stuck the cuttings into the soil, and within a couple of weeks the planter was full of Purple Heart. It looked great—for about one month. Summer came, it got leggy, segments continually dropped off the plants onto the ground, and although the planter was in a shady area, the plants were soon sun-scorched and just ugly. Rather than pull it all up, I cut it back, and it grew back again, but didn’t look any better. In the fall, it started perking up—for about a month. When winter came and the temperatures dipped, the plant looked even worse, and eventually melted from frost. It came back from the dead in early spring. I was thankful I had not planted it in my garden; it was like the biblical Lazarus!
Previously classified as Setcreasea purpurea, Purple Heart is native to Eastern Mexico. It is somewhat drought resistant, and can take some light frost. Also called Wandering Jew and Wash Pot Plant, it will grow just about anywhere, but supposedly does the best in USDA Zones 8b-11. (I dispute that. Our zone 9b is too hot!) Small pink, three-petaled flowers grace it heavily in spring, and it flowers lightly off and on through the summer.
Now I know why that nursery woman gave me the cuttings. She probably would have felt guilty selling them to me. In my opinion, having a plant that looks good only two months out of twelve is just taking up space, so I will take it out of the wok planter and probably try it in a couple of smaller pots that I keep on the patio and see if it looks better longer. If not, I’ve learned a good lesson. However, as a houseplant, Purple Heart is great. I’ve kept a couple of cuttings in a vase on my kitchen table that I acquired almost two decades ago. It always looks good.