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 plants 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.
Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods” and other books. He leads regular ethnobotany walks. He can be reached at School of Self-reliance , Box 41834 , Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.ChristopherNyerges.com.