The «Purple Heart» (Tradescantia pallida) is a hardy plant with a stunning color payoff. It’s a beautiful perennial with long, trailing stems that resemble rambling vines. Commonly planted in pots or displayed in hanging baskets, purple hearts are 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» was known as Setcreasea pallida «Purple Heart» and is sometimes called a purple queen. Purple heart is native to the Gulf Coast region of Mexico and can grow to heights of one and a half feet tall and wide. Its purple leaves are long and oval-shaped, producing small purple flowers in summer. This striking appearance makes it perfect for everyday use as an ornamental plant in gardens and along borders or driveways. However, as all Tradescantia plants are toxic to people and pets, be mindful of where you grow this trailing plant—juice from the leaves or stems can cause skin irritation for some people and even some dogs.
|Purple Heart, Purple Queen, Purple Secretia
|12-18 in. tall, 12-18 in. wide
|Loamy, Moist, Well-drained
|Acidic, Neutral, Alkaline (6.0 to 8.0)
|Zones 7-10 (USDA)
|toxic to dogs, toxic to cats, toxic to pets, toxic to people
Purple Heart Plant Care
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.» When planted outdoors, the purple heart plant grows best with regular watering and a balance of full sun and light shade despite being relatively drought-tolerant. On the other hand, growing a purple heart in full sun will help it develop a bright purple color. Growing it in the shade will make it appear more green than purple. Purple heart plants need rich, moist, well-draining soil to grow. Stems are notoriously fragile and can break off very easily.
While these plants are popular for pots and hanging baskets, they are also sometimes employed as ground cover plantings because of their hardiness. If used as a ground cover, use Tradescantia pallida species cautiously, as 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.
Plant purple heart plants in full sun to grow vibrant purple stems. Plants growing in partial shade will appear more green than purple. Indirect or filtered light helps avoid leaf burn or scorch, but too little sunlight will cause foliage to drop.
Purple heart plants grow in loose, airy, moist, and well-draining soil. Drainage is essential for the purple heart, but these plants are relatively adaptable to soil pH, ranging from slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. Supplement soil with perlite to assist with drainage.
Plants need more water when establishing, but after a few years are relatively drought-tolerant. Allow the soil to drain entirely and wait until the top few inches of soil are dry. Weekly waterings should suffice for established plants, but more during the blooming season or periods of extreme heat.
Temperature and Humidity
Purple heart plants thrive in humid climates, so if growing as a houseplant, use a humidifier to mimic tropical conditions. When grown outdoors, the purple heart plant will die back in the winter when temperatures reach below 40°F, but the roots stay alive. Dry air causes foliage damage. While adaptable to a range of temperatures, frost can cause permanent damage to plants.
Fertilize purple heart plants twice a month throughout the growing season—spring to fall—with a diluted liquid balanced fertilizer. Too much fertilization can cause leaf burn, so reduce feedings to once a month during the winter.
Types of Purple Heart Plants
Beyond the purple heart plant, other Tradescantia species are also widespread.
- Tradescantia pallida «Variegata»: This plant, producing striped pink-and-red foliage, is used in pots or as ground cover and thrives in full sun with moderate water.
- Tradescantia virginiana «Virginia spiderwort»: A Southern classic with foliage that has a grassy appearance. It produces short-lived flowers in a rainbow of shades, many of which bloom for only one day.
- Tradescantia sillamontana «White Velvet»: This plant is an easy-to-grow evergreen perennial known for oval gray-green foliage. This variety makes a distinctive groundcover in areas with warm areas.
The purple heart plant has a quick growth rate, so pruning often will prevent the plant from getting too spindly or leggy. After flowering finishes in the spring, cut back growth using sharp pruning shears and pinch off stems to encourage new branching. Wear gloves when pruning in the summer to avoid sap from contacting your skin.
Propagating Purple Heart Plants
Seedlings for the purple heart plant can sometimes be challenging to come by. This plant propagates quickly from any part of the plant by placing it in adaptable soil or water. Here is how to propagate the purple heart plant through stem cuttings:
- This delicate plant breaks easily, so choose a three-to-six-inch branch and cut it with a sharp knife or scissors below the leaf node.
- Dip the cutting in a rooting hormone and place it directly into a container filled with potting soil or water.
- Move the entire container into indirect sunlight for one to two weeks and keep the cutting moist.
- After roots emerge, transplant new growth to its final location.
Potting and Repotting Purple Heart Plants
If growing the purple heart plant as a houseplant, repotting might be necessary if the roots extend to the edge of its current container. Moving plants to new pots occurs most often during the growing season. Transplant into a larger container filled with moist potting soil. Make sure to maintain plenty of drainage holes to prevent root rot.
Purple heart plants can survive cold weather, but frost typically kills the tops of the plant. Fortunately, it will sprout again from its roots when spring returns.
Nurturing purple heart plants as a houseplant is also a great option if you want to avoid them dying over the winter. It will thrive in an indoor environment. Purple heart plants are lovely to look at and have nearby, but they also help to improve air quality by filtering pollutants and respiratory irritants.
If you live in an area with temperatures that reach below 40°F, then bring plants indoors to prevent cold damage.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Deer usually ignore these plants. However, a few pests love to make purple heart plants their home. Look for leaf beetles, scales, mealybugs, aphids, vine weevils, caterpillars, slugs, and snails. Small holes may appear on the foliage if a pest infestation occurs, but soapy water or an insecticide can help if the issue persists.
Root rot is a common disease that occurs when the plant has poor soil drainage or a lack of oxygen. This fungal disease can also spread through the soil. Use sterilized pruning shears to remove infected areas or move plants to a new location with soil that is not contaminated.
Common Problems With Purple Heart Plants
Purple heart plants are relatively hardy, but issues such as overwatering, improper sun exposure, or soil nutrient imbalance can cause issues. Here’s what to know when caring for the purple heart plant:
Leaves Turning Yellow
Yellowing leaves often signify overwatering. Overwatering can also cause a nutrient imbalance in the soil, so wait until the top few inches of soil are dry and ensure plenty of drainage holes in containers. Older plants might experience yellowing leaves because of age, but this is natural.
Leaves Turning Black/Brown
Similar to yellow leaves, brown leaves are systematic of old age in plants. Purple heart plants have foliage that turns brown when it lacks moisture or humidity. Additionally, leaves turn brown when overexposed to sunlight. If growing plants indoors, use a humidifier or move the plant into the bathroom when showering to help encourage humidity.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I care for a purple heart plant in my house?
Purple heart plants growing indoors require similar care instructions as those growing outside. Provide plants with full sun exposure for most of the day, but do not burn the foliage. While relatively drought-tolerant once established, the purple heart plant needs frequent watering throughout the winter. Add a humidifier near the plant to help avoid brown dried leaves.
Will purple heart plants survive winter?
The purple heart plant thrives year-round in mild climates as far north as USDA Zone 6. In regions with colder temperatures and frost conditions, pruning can help protect the plant and conserve its energy for the following spring. The purple heart plant will resprout from the roots in the spring if cared for throughout the winter.