Dying Leaves on a Wandering Jew

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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?

Diana

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. 

Another species of wandering jew Tradescantia fluminensis ‘Tricolor’. Photo: plantsam.com

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. 

After cleanup, a wandering jew (here, Tradescantia zebrina) is quite presentable again.

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

Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum). Source: www.amazon.com

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. scandensP. 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!

Climbing Plants Like to Climb

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This dangling heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron oxycardium) will produce smaller leaves than a climbing one.

That climbing plants like to climb may seem like a fairly obvious statement, but bear with me: it really isn’t.

You see, we like to grow climbing plants (plants that mount trees, treillises, walls and other tall objects), especially climbing houseplants, in hanging baskets, with their stems dangling downwards. They certainly look pretty enough grown that way… but they don’t much like it.

Many will start to produce smaller and smaller leaves the longer they dangle. That’s the case of most aroids, including philodendrons and pothos, as well as many Cissus. Sometimes they stop producing leaves entirely, producing only a lengthening green stem. Others just stop growing after they’ve dangled for a while or refuse to bloom on any stems that trail. That’s the case for morning glories (Ipomoea spp.), for example.

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Try growing a morning glory as a hanging plant and it will try growing upwards, wrapping itself around its own stems.

Of course, many climbing plants will fight tooth and nail against dangling. The afore-mentioned morning glories will quickly start to twine back up around their own stems in an effort to grow upwards again. If you won’t let them, untangling their stems so they trail further, they will stop growing and certainly won’t bloom.

This reaction is due to hormones called auxins present in their stem tips. They concentrate in the uppermost part of the stem and stimulate growth. When the plant hangs in what is essentially an upside down position, the auxins become diluted and growth decreases or ceases.

Finding a New Support

In the wild, when a hanging plant becomes disconnected from its support, it will often trail downward to the ground, producing increasingly smaller leaves, then its stem wanders off across the soil until it finds a new support it can climb.

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A climbing plant will seek out something dark on which to climb.

At this stage, it will actually grow away from the light, an action called negative phototropism, normally a most unplantlike thing to do. But there is a method to this madness: deep shade can be caused a tree trunk or other upright object it might want to climb on. And it desperately wants to climb.

So off the stem heads towards the darkest thing around. Once it finds it, it starts growing upward again, takes up positive phototropism like any normal plant, and soon its leaves start become bigger again. Happiness at last!

When Climbing Plants Do Climb

If you switch techniques and allow your climbing plants to climb, perhaps up a trellis, a moss pole or a wall, rather than trail from a pot, many will do some striking things. Many aroids (philodendrons, pothos, monsteras, etc.) will begin to produce larger leaves — much larger leaves — when they climb. And much thicker stems too.

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Huge healthy leaves on an upright-growing heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum)

Did you know your good ol’ heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum, syn. P. oxycardiumP. scandens and P. cordatum), whose leaves are often barely 2 inches (5 cm) wide when it trails, is capable of producing leaves 1 foot (30 cm) in diameter when it climbs?

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If it weren’t for the yellow marbling, you’d scarcely recognize the huge, deeply cut leaves and thick stems of this pothos (Epipremunum aureum) as those of the popular houseplant.

And that pothos (Epipremnum aureum, syn. Scindapsus aureus) growing half neglected in the corner does the philodendron one better: at maturity (that is, when it grows upright and gets decent light [also a factor in leaf size]), not only do its leaves grow to enormous sizes, up to 40 inches by 18 inches (1 m by 45 cm), but they become deeply cut, like those of a monstera.

This increase in leaf size is also linked to sexual maturity: once they reach their full leaf size, these aroids will start to bloom and produce seeds. You thought philodendrons and pothos simply didn’t bloom? Try growing them up a tree in a tropical climate (most rooms aren’t tall enough to get them to flowering size) and they will bloom.

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Mature leaves and fruit on a creeping fig (Ficus pumila).

Other climbers keep producing small leaves as they climb, leaves that don’t change in size at first, often not for years. Then, when they’ve climbed high enough, they suddenly switch from this juvenile form to their mature form, with much larger leaves often of a very different shape and they too start to bloom and produce seeds. True ivies (Hedera spp.) do this, as does the creeping fig (Ficus pumila).

Some Climbers Don’t React

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Hoya carnosa is one climber that doesn’t seem to care which way it grows. Even hanging stems will bloom!

Not all climbers react badly to dangling. I’ve never seen a wax plant (Hoya spp.) that seemed to mind whether it was growing upwards, downwards or sideways, for example.

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Wandering jews (here Tradescantia zebrina, syn. Zebrina pendula) are natural trailers and don’t mind a bit of dangling.

And then there is the case of creeping plants we use in hanging baskets, like wandering jew (Tradescantia sp.) and Swedish ivy (Plectranthus). Although we might mistake them for climbers, they aren’t really aren’t: in nature, they’re groundcovers, wandering sideways, rooting as they go and forming carpets on the ground. They grow and bloom perfectly when you let them hang and even if you force them to grow upwards by fixing them to a support, that won’t change their leaf size or habit.

The same is true of epiphytic plants (ones that grow on tree branches), like the lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus spp.) and the goldfish plant (Nematanthus spp.). They look great in hanging baskets because they naturally arch outwards and downwards and are perfectly happy to bloom this way. But they aren’t true climbers.


Most true climbers will react positively if you allow them to grow the way Mother Nature intended them to do: upwards.

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