What is Callisia?

Terrie Brockmann
Terrie Brockmann
Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

The plant genus Callisia contains about 20 species and belongs to the Commelinaceae, or spiderwort, family. These sub-erect, or creeping, succulent plants are native to the southeastern United States, parts of Mexico, and tropical South American areas, where they spread along forest margins. Gardeners choose Callisia plants because of their attractive leaves. Generally, they use the plants as ground cover, border plantings, and houseplants.

Often in nursery pots the charming, young plants look like rosettes, but they quickly become leggy and outgrow this effect. The plants are conspicuously jointed and sheathed by leaf bases at nodes along the stem, and the leaves decrease in size along the stem. Many species have 2- to 4-inch (about 5- to 10-cm) long leaves that have reddish or purplish undersides. Some species, like C. fragrans, have leaves that grow up to about 10 inches (25 cm) long.

The flowers often are white, pink, or blue. Typically, they grow in groups of three in terminal panicles, or cymes, that curl in a scorpoid manner. Each flower contains three sepals and three petals and generally measure 0.5 inches (about 1.5 cm) across. C. fragrans has fragrant flowers that some growers describe as clove-smelling. Characteristic of the spiderwort family, Callisia plants generally have spider-like, hairy flower stalks.

Like many species in the Callisia genus, C. elegans has a synonym — Setcreasea striata. Commonly people often refer to it as the striped inch plant because it has long white silver or white stripes on the leaves. The leaf underside is purple, which is why many growers display it as a hanging plant. It is a decumbent plant, meaning that it is low growing with up-reaching growth tips.

C. fragrans has two synonyms: Tradescantia dracaenoides and Spironema fragrans. People commonly refer to this Mexican native as the chain plant or wandering Jew. Like the striped inch plant, the leaves have purple undersides. The 3-foot (about 1-m) long stems are reddish purple. The long shiny, light green leaves may turn reddish purple in sunny areas.

A very different Callisia is C. Rosea. This upright succulent has thin, long leaves that may measure about one-eighth of an inch (about 0.5 cm) wide. The leaves grow in clumps rather than on a trailing stem. It is native in the US from parts of Virginia to areas of Florida. The small, pink flowers are 0.5 to 1 inch (1.5 to 2.5 cm) in diameter and bloom in summer. Unlike many other Callisia plants, the flowers are solitary, one to a flower stalk, and the three sepals are much smaller than the flower petals.

Whereas the C. Rosea may grow to 16 inches (40 cm) tall and wide, the C. Rosea grows to about 4 inches (about 10 cm) tall, but sprawls to approximately 3 feet (1 m) in length. The white flowers are borne in clusters on spike-like, curled cymes. The leaves are ovate in shape, bright green in color, and tiny — 0.5 to 1.5 inches (1 to 4 cm) long. It is a popular houseplant.

Gardeners grow Callisia plants outdoors in frost-free climates. Generally, they thrive in shaded areas or areas that get dappled sunlight. They make good ground covers due to their sprawling, creeping habit. Indoors, most gardeners plant them in hanging baskets or place them on shelves where their long stems can dangle. Growers usually propagate the plants by rooting stem cuttings.

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