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What is a Moses in the Cradle?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 23 August 2016
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Moses in the cradle is the common name of a plant that is characterized by long, sword shaped, bi-colored leaves and flowers that appear to be in a small boat. The plant is also known under several colloquial names; the scientific name for the plant is Tradescantia spathacea, with the synonym Rhoeo spathacea. It is native to Mexico, and can be planted outdoors in warm humid climates or indoors as a houseplant. Moses in the cradle is an easy plant to care for and is popular for its ornamental qualities and tropical feel.

The Moses in the cradle plant usually has at least eight-to-ten upright sword-shaped leaves that are arranged in an alternating radial pattern from the base of the plant. The leaves can grow to a length of about 12 to 18 inches (30.5 to 76 cm) and are approximately 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide at their widest point. They are rather stiff with a smooth texture, and have green tops with a purple underside. Since the leaves stay in a fairly upright position, both colors are visible at once, giving the plant a unique look.

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Flowers can bloom on the Moses in the cradle plant at any time, and the appearance of the flowers is what gives the plant many of its common names. The flowers bloom near the base of the plant, between two leaves, in a purple boat-shaped structure made up of the bracts, which are specialized leaves that grow with the flowers. The flowers are small and white, with three petals and yellow stamens, and often grow in small clusters of two to three blossoms. These blossoms give the appearance of being nestled in a boat among the reeds, bringing to mind the biblical story about Moses as a baby, and giving the plant several of its names, including Moses in the cradle, Moses in a basket, and boatlily.

Indigenous to Mexico, the Moses in the cradle plant is an evergreen perennial that does well in a warm, humid climate. It can be planted as an outdoor perennial in areas where there is no frost, and as a houseplant or an outdoor annual in colder climates. Some common outdoor uses include groundcover, borders and containers, and it's also easy to care for as a houseplant. It is often used by gardeners for its tropical feel and interesting coloring.

Since the plant tends to be prone to diseases like root rot if kept too moist, it it very important to plant Moses in the cradle in well drained soil, and to use containers with drainage holes. It will thrive in bright sunlight, with regular watering to keep soil just slightly moist. It can be fertilized every other week, and is fairly easy to propagate using cuttings. It is able to tolerate extreme heat as well as drought conditions once it is established. The plant's hardiness combined with its looks makes it a popular, low maintenance choice for the garden or the house.

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