Sweet Kate

Published 1:22 am Sunday, February 17, 2008

Few people recognize the plant name tradescantia, but most people are familiar with spiderwort, Purple Heart, Wandering Jew, Moses-in-the-cradle, Three-men-in-the-boat and Moses-in-the-bulrushes, which are all tradescantia. Now add Sweet Kate to the list of must-have tradescantias.

Sweet Kate’s foliage, which is golden lime or chartreuse, is so colorful you might not care if it blooms. But it does bloom. The blooms are an eye-catching violet blue that perfectly complements the foliage.

Common native spiderworts like the Tradescantia virginia (Virginia spiderwort) and Tradescantia occidentalis (prairie spiderwort) stand out along roadsides, enticing many gardeners to include them in their landscape, despite the fact some have a reputation for being a little aggressive.

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Sweet Kate, a Tradescantia andesoniana hybrid from England, is so striking in the landscape that you will find yourself hoping it will be aggressive and make a large groundcover. It is cold hardy from zones 4 to 9, which means most of the country can grow it.

For best results, select a site with fertile, well-drained soil. If you have a potential brick factory because of clay, incorporate 3 to 4 inches of organic matter or plant on raised beds in a prepared planting mix.

Sweet Kate blooms best from May through July. Once the heat of late summer sets in, consider cutting Sweet Kate back hard. This will cause a flush of regrowth and a period of blooming in the fall. When you cut Sweet Kate or any of the others, you will notice where they get their common name: a sap is secreted and hardens into a substance that is similar to a spider web.

Hopefully, you are eagerly thinking of looking for Sweet Kate when spring arrives, and you may even be wondering what to choose for a dazzling partnership. One combination I photographed last summer featured King Tut papyrus as the tallest plant in the back of the border, Sweet Kate in the middle and in front a patch of Homestead Purple verbena, which has flowers that complement Sweet Kate’s leaves.

Purple Heart, or Tradescantia pallida, also has all the landscapers and horticulturists raving. A lot of catalogs, books and Internet sites still refer to it by the name Setcreasea pallida with the common name setcreasea.

A native of eastern Mexico, this deep purple vining plant is drought tolerant and ideal for landscapes. I once did a TV segment suggesting that if you wanted to go on a worry-free vacation, you should plant Purple Heart, New Gold lantana and a rock.

The Purple Heart is perennial in zones 8 to 11, but I have had many gardeners say it returns faithfully each year with a layer of mulch in zone 7. It also makes a great heat-tolerant annual. Like Sweet Kate, Purple Heart prefers a well-drained, organic-rich bed, but it is being touted as the plant that will grow just about anywhere it doesn’t get wet feet. In fact, root rot is its No. 1 enemy, but this usually only occurs in soggy soils.

The groundhog says winter will linger a while longer, so just make plans to include these great plants when spring arrives.