All About the Purple Heart Plant
If you ask The Southern Living Garden Book to point you toward a hardy plant with a stunning color payoff, it will send you straight to purple heart plant. Also known as Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Heart,' it's a beautiful, hardy perennial with long, trailing stems that resemble rambling vines. Purple hearts are most often found planted in pots or displayed in hanging baskets. They're aptly named, as their foliage appears in silvery purple and violet hues.
Tradescantia species are perennials in the family Commelinaceae, also known as the spiderwort family. Tradescantia pallida 'Purple Heart' used to be known as Setcreasea pallida 'Purple Heart' and it is sometimes also called purple queen. Purple heart is native to the Gulf Coast region of Mexico and can grow to heights of one to one and a half feet tall and wide. Its purple leaves are long and oval-shaped, and it produces small purple flowers during the summer months. This striking appearance makes it perfect for common use as an ornamental plant in gardens and along borders or driveways.
Growing Purple Heart Plant
The Southern Living Garden Book explains, "Types grown as houseplants should be given bright indirect light and kept fairly moist; feed them with a general-purpose liquid houseplant fertilizer twice a month from spring through fall, once a month in winter." While it is drought tolerant, when planted outdoors purple heart grows best with regular watering and a balance of full sun and light shade. On the other hand, growing purple heart in full sun is what will help it to develop the bright purple color. Growing it in shade will result in it appearing more green than purple. Regardless of which route you choose, it needs rich, moist, well-draining soil to grow. And be careful with the stems; they are notoriously fragile and can break off very easily.
Purple heart is capable of surviving cold weather, but the tops of the plant are typically killed off by frost. Fortunately, it will sprout again from its roots when spring returns. Nurturing purple heart as a houseplant is also a great option if you want to avoid this winter death and spring resurrection altogether. It will thrive in an indoor environment, and its presence inside will benefit you as well. Not only are purple hearts lovely to look at and have nearby, but they also help to improve air quality by filtering pollutants and respiratory irritants.
Seedlings for purple heart can sometimes be difficult to come by. Don't worry if you can only find a few because this plant can be easily propagated from any part of the plant by placing it in the right soil or in water.
Invasive Tendencies and Other Downsides
While these plants are popular for pots and hanging baskets, because of their hardiness they are also sometimes employed as ground cover plantings. If used as a ground cover, Tradescantia pallida species should be approached with caution. That's because the most vigorous types can become invasive. Be sure to choose a less rambling type and be an attentive gardener to keep it corralled in your yard.
Deer usually ignore these plants and aren't known to browse them in the garden. However, there are a few pests that love to make purple heart plants their home. Look out for scales, mealybugs, aphids, and vine weevil, as well as the usual suspects, caterpillars, slugs, and snails.
It's important to be aware that the juice from the leaves or stems can cause skin irritation for some people, and even for some dogs. This problem is not particularly common, but if you, those in your home, or your dog(s) have skin sensitivities, it's good to know this risk.
Other Tradescantia Species
Beyond purple heart plant, other Tradescantia species are also popular plantings in the region. Tradescantia pallida 'Variegata' produces striped pink-and-red foliage. It can be used in pots or as ground cover, and it thrives in full sun with moderate water. Tradescantia spathacea (Rhoeo spathacea), also known as Moses in the Basket, has sword-shaped purple-and-green foliage. Tradescantia virginiana, a Southern classic, is also known as spiderwort. Its foliage has a grassy appearance, and it produces short-lived flowers in a rainbow of shades, many of which bloom for only one day.
Do you have any purple heart plants in your garden? What are your favorite plants for pots and hanging baskets?