Question: I have a wandering jew and the leaves at the base of the plant, in the pot, are almost all dead and dry. Still, the stems continue to grow new leaves from the stem tips and looks very healthy. Why are those at the base of the plant dying?
Answer: The wandering jew (various creeping Tradescantia species and related plants bear that name) is a fast-growing, trailing houseplant usually kept in a hanging basket. However, because it is so fast-growing, it rapidly produces new leaves from the stem tips and the older ones, those at its base, simply die, having done their job.
Almost all plants do this, that is, replace old leaves with new ones: some are just more obvious about it than others. In temperate climates, leaf drop tends to be seasonal, with all the old leaves falling at once in the fall, then new ones appearing just as simultaneously the following spring. In semi-arid and arid climates, the same happens at the beginning of the dry season, with new leaves appearing with the return of the rains.
However, plants from tropical humid climates, like wandering jews (they hail from the jungles of Central and South America), where growth is possible in any season, tend to produce new leaves and lose old ones a few at a time, all year long.
Better Conditions Can Help… A Bit!
If you give your wandering jew excellent growing conditions, such as intense lighting (indoors that is; outdoors, it prefers some shade), high humidity, deep, thorough waterings before the soil dries to a crisp and moderate fertilization, its growth will be denser, therefore the older leaves will be partly hidden by the newer ones and their dying will be less obvious … at first. Eventually, however, the plant’s flaw always ends up catching up with it. The wandering jew is famous for the speed at which it produces dead leaves!
Therefore, if you’re picky about plant neatness, you’ll need to go over your plant and remove the dead leaves every week or so.
Of course, as the oldest leaves are mostly in the pot, while newer leaves are on the stems that hang downwards, this can leave the plant looking pretty awkward after a while. A lot of leafless stems, like so much vegetable spaghetti, lie listlessly in the pot and drip over the edges, while only the bottom half of the plant, towards the tip of the numerous stems, are still fully clothed. If you find that the plant has thus lost its charm, you can restart a new one from stem cuttings. Or, cut the plant way back, to almost to the base, and soon, it will grow anew, fresh as a rose.
An Easier Replacement
If repeated harvesting of dead leaves annoys you, why not switch plants? The wandering jew is always going to need persnickety care: it’s the nature of the beast. So why not substitute a heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum, formerly called P. scandens, P. cordatum and P. oxycardium)? Unlike the wandering jew, its leaves remain in top condition for years (I kid you not!) before dying rather than just a few months! It’s the perfect houseplant for a laidback gardener!