Wood-pole fence bordered by Oyster plants (Bahia Principe A-Nah residential area)
As a transplant to Mexico, and as an experienced Zone 2-3 urban gardener in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to a Zone 11 garden in Quintana Roo, I was more than a little overwhelmed with the thought of gardening in paradise. For those of you new to gardening, Zone 2 to Zone 11 in gardening terms is like going from “freezing your toes off cold” to “I can’t jump in the pool fast enough, hot”. Also being new to the Mayan Home & Garden Club, I was a little anxious when asked to think about an article for the newsletter on a garden topic in a region of flora that I know nothing about. So, I focused in on a plant I walk past everyday. One I am attracted to, but know nothing about: the Oyster Plant.
Before moving to Mexico, and on short vacations to the area, I began a love affair with this particular plant as it always caught my attention, nestled among gorgeous landscaping designs on the grounds of 5-star hotels and in the lush surroundings of restaurants and pools. I wondered if it was abundant in these landscape designs because it is native to this environment, or just easy to grow and low maintenance, or both. From some simple on-line research I discovered, it is both! Good news for me and any other newbie gardener to this tropical environment.
It is important to note this plant has numerous common names, mostly starting with “Moses-In-The-” and ending in any of “-Boat”, “-Cradle”, “-Bullrushes”, “-Basket”. I personally like Moses-In-The Boat, but others might prefer a more straight forward title such as: Purple Spiderwort or Boat Lily. Apparently, the name-game can get quite confusing with this plant, as many other plants have identical or similar common names, so in an effort to avoid befuddlement, I am simply going to call it by it’s simplest name – Oyster Plant. For those of you who like formality, it is “Tradescantia spathacea” from the “Commelinaceae” family, native to Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and other parts of the Caribbean.
Why do so many people find this plant exciting? My personal attraction to it is the gorgeous metallic green leaves with purple undersides. It is as if the plant had a dash of purple paint stroked over it’s dagger-shaped leaves to give it that extra “umph” so many other plants lack. The succulent leaves stand erect, swirled around a centre from which new growth forms, creating a dense, compact structure (see Image 2). This particular variety is dwarf and grows to about 25-30cm high (10-12”), but there are other varieties to choose from (too many to talk about here). The Oyster Plant can stand alone in a row as the edging to a fence (see Image 1), clumped together en masse, or bordering a larger plot of taller shrubs, especially if those shrubs have a tinge of purple in them. It is equally as striking surrounding a large rock or boulder, as it is around a lone tree, as though giving the tree an anchor in the landscape. Everyone remembers the color wheel when it comes to gardening, right? Imagine a hedge with yellow flowers and at its feet a row of Oyster Plants with those purple undersides peeking through. Striking!
Oyster Plant is described as an “easy to grow ground cover”. Perfect! I defy anyone to deny the need for an easy-to-grow-low-maintenance ground cover in their landscaping. I might even try it in a large pot with a focal point plant in the middle, and Oyster Plants encircling the edge. I will let you know how it goes (maybe in another article).
But, as with anything good, comes the bad. This plant can be invasive, and worse yet, it is poisonous. Yup, you read correctly, poisonous. Let’s define what poisonous means as it pertains to this plant, and any other poisonous plant for that matter: DO NOT EAT IT! And don’t let your pets eat it either. Apparently it also can cause a skin rash if not handled with gloves, although that theory is hotly debated in the gardening community. I guess I will test this theory when I make my planter – the skin rash theory that is, as I have no intention of eating it to test if it is indeed poisonous to ingest; I will trust, that part is true.
In case you were wondering, Oyster Plant does flower, although it’s not known for flowering as much as for its purple leaves. The flowers, however, are small and white, crowded around in a little boat (or cradle, or bullrush, or basket) sitting low inside the leaves. Luckily this plant enjoys sun or shade, and does not particularly care about how much attention you give it. Over-water or leave dry, it will thrive in any number of careless conditions, so for novice or experienced gardeners, it will survive and propagate at will, via roots or seeds blown carelessly by the wind, or through cuttings by human hands.
All in all, I have learned a lot about this plant, but have a lot more learning to go about the flora of Quintana Roo. I am certain however, that the Oyster Plant sounds like, and looks like, the perfect plant for a novice-newbie gardener to Mexico, like myself. At least now, after doing my research, I can talk intelligently about at least one plant in Mexico when sitting with the gang from the Mayan Home & Garden Club at one of the monthly meetings (which start up again in October). And if you liked this article, and are so inclined, maybe you would like to join us at our meetings and we can write and garden together. Stay tuned!
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It’s been my Mayan Home & Gardening pleasure,
Brenda L Calnan