Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Learning about Tradescantia

The TRADESCANTIA plant is also known as Spiderwort and Wandering Jew

Various vining plants of the Tradescantia genus are very common throughout the Southern California area.  Sometimes they are called spiderworts, sometimes wandering jew.  They are great survival plants. They can be green or purple, and are sometimes used as ornamentals.  However, more often they are simply the plants that take over an area when nothing else is grown. 

The purple ones are Tradescantia pallida, which are usually house plans or hanging plants.  The ones with purplish leaves with stripes are T. zebrina, also typically an ornamenal. Both of these are occasionally sold at nurseries.

The variety that is widespread, growing in the mountains and backyards, and seeming to need no care, is T. fluminensis, a common vining groundcover with green leaves.  There are a few horticultural varieties that you might encounter. Though the leaves are usually solid green with a smooth margin, some have white stripes in the leaves, and some have wavy margins. And while the flowers are typically blue, some have white flowers.

So is this an edible plant?

I long wondered about this, and yet there were no references to this plant being used for food.  In the mid-1980s, a Phillipino friend told me that he commonly ate the leaves back home, usually in a soup or broth in which chicken and beetles were added.  I tried cooking without the chicken or beetles, and found that it made a spinach-like dish, though somewhat bland, and certainly improved with butter.

I also began trying it in salads, and again, though bland, it is edible. I have had good salads with about two-thirds chopped T. fluminensis leaves, and about a third avocado, with dressing.

I learned that if you eat a little too much, it will have a mild laxative effect. Also, if you pick it and store it in your refrigerator for a few days, the leaves will darken and begin to decompose. They do not have the keeping quality of other greens, like lamb’s quarter for example.

In the early 90s, we used to collect and sell bagged wild salad and wild soup mixes at the local farmers markets and to Wild Oats market. Though we initially added the T. fluminensis leaves, we discontinued that practice because the leaves would turn black in a day or two, whereas all the other wild leaves that we collected and bagged would last for up to two weeks. 

Still, the plant is so widespread that it is worth getting to know.  I don’t use it extremely often, but I do occasionally add some of the green leaves to a fresh salad, and sometimes soups.  I might add the Tradescantia fluminensis leaves to dishes where the other wild leaves are very hot or spicy, as a way to balance out the flavor.

A mentor of mine recently revealed that he’d been using these green wandering jew or spiderwort leaves for over 40 years as one of the ingredients of a wild kim-chee that he makes by soaking various greens in raw apple cider vinegar. 

He has also pickled the purple flowers of Tradescantia pallida and found them delicious.  However, the pickled leaves were described as “palatable,” and the pickled stems as “ok.”  Of course, relative palatability is largely determined by how you prepare any given plant, and  how  you season it.  At least I learned that,  yes, you can also eat the purple wandering jew.

Remember, always eat any new food sparingly to see how your body reacts, and never eat any wild food if you haven’t positively identified it.

I’d love to hear from any readers who try these foods.  And by the way, I’ve been leading Wild Food Outings since 1974.  If you live in the area, you should check the Schedule at and try to join us one time.


jenny1948 said...

Although I found your blog interesting, I'd much rather read about growing tips, different spiecies and solving problems with the plants and not just about eating it. Sorry to be negative but I wouldn't like to try eating it at all as the sap often irritates the skin so goodness knows what it might do to the digestive system.

Christopher Nyerges said...

thank you Jenny for your comments. I do realize that this plant is considered a serious pest in some areas, and that some people grow certain varieties, such as the purple one, for houseplants.
I once needed a quick groundcover and so i tossed a few stems in the yard, and in a few months, the entire large area was covered with this plant. I never focused much on growing tips,since it seemed to take care of itself. I did pull large clumps of it to feed my pig, and he always ate it all.