Spiderwort

COMMON NAME: spiderwort
GENUS: Tradescantia
SPECIES, HYBRIDS: T. andersoniana {hybrid of T. bracteata and T. virginiana}
FAMILY: Commelinaceae
BLOOMS: summer
TYPE: perennial
DESCRIPTION: The three petals of the spiderwort blossom are gently scalloped and beautifully colored. Hybrids developed from two native North American species have resulted in flowers in shades of blue, pinks, reds, and white. The foliage is long, narrow, and grasslike. This plant has a very long blooming period, generally lasting from early summer until frost. Blossoms close by midday, but new flowers appear early the next morning.
CULTIVATION: Spiderworts need rich, well-drained soil but perform equally well in full sun or light shade. Water them regularly, and top-dress the plants in the fall with organic matter.

Although spiderwort in its species form is considered something of an aggressive weed, the flowers resulting from hybridization are lovely and the growth habit quite suited to the formal garden.
The name spiderwort has several possible origins. The leaves of the plant are long and narrow, reminding some of spider legs. This plant was used at one time as a cure for spider bites.
Enzyme action within the plant causes the flowers, after they have been pollinated, not to shrivel when they die, but to turn into a runny blob. This characteristic has given it names like Moses in the bulrushes and widow’s tears.
The genus was named for John Tradescant and his son, who were royal gardeners to King Charles I of England. They were responsible for bringing many new plants to England from the colonies.

Spiderwort is extremely sensitive to varying levels of pollution and will quickly undergo mutations that change the color of the stamens. Recently it has been discovered that not only is spiderwort useful in indicating pollution from pesticides, herbicides, auto exhaust, and sulpher dioxide, but it is also extremely sensitive to low levels of radiation. According to Norman Myer’s book A Wealth of Wild Species, spiderwort may measure radiation levels better than a mechanical counter, such as a dosimeter, for the machine is limited to detecting external exposure, whereas the plant indicates internal damage as well. The stamens of spiderwort change color in only ten to fifteen days after exposure. Now being marketed commercially by a company in California, spiderwort is being used to detect harmful pollution levels as well as the presence of cancer-causing radiation.

VIRGINIA SPIDERWORT: Tradescantia virginiana L.

Plant Symbol = TRVI Contributed by: USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center Alternate Names Common spiderwort, dayflower, flower-of-a-day, Job’s tears, snake-grass, spider-lily, trinity, trinitylily, widow’s-tears

Uses Ethnobotanic: The Cherokee and other Native American tribes used Virginia spiderwort for various food and medicinal purposes. The young leaves were eaten as salad greens or were mixed with other greens and then either fried or boiled until tender. The plant was mashed and rubbed onto insect bites to relieve pain and itching. A paste, made from the mashed roots, was used as a poultice to treat cancer. A tea made from the plant was used as a laxative and to treat stomach aches associated with overeating. Virginia spiderwort was one of the seven ingredients in a tea used to treat “female ailments or rupture.” It was also combined with several other ingredients in a medicine for kidney trouble.

Status Please consult your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status (e.g. threatened or endangered species, state noxious status, and wetland indicator values).

Description General: Spiderwort Family (Commelinaceae). Virginia spiderwort is a native, perennial forb. This plant was probably named for the delicate spider web-like filaments that surround the anthers of the flower or the threadlike secretion that emerges from the stem upon cutting. The lightly fragrant flowers (2 to 5.4 cm in diameter) grow in terminal clusters. The flower’s three broadly ovate petals are generally bright blue but are sometimes purple, violet, rose, and rarely white. Individual blossoms last for only one or two days, but new blossoms appear daily throughout the spring blooming period. The plants grow in erect clumps that range from 30 to 60 cm in height. The rounded stalks are either single or branched at the base. The roots are thick and fleshy. The plant spreads through underground stems or stolons to form large colonies. The smooth iris-like leaves are long (15 to 46 cm) and narrow (2.5 cm wide) with a prominent midrib.

Distribution: Habitat: Virginia spiderwort can be found in moist prairies, fertile woodlands, open woods, meadows, hillsides, stony bluffs, stream banks, and along roadsides. Establishment Virginia spiderwort is a vigorous plant that likes moist soils but will adapt to drier, average garden soils. The plants are often seen in old-fashioned gardens and work well as part of a perennial border. They are recommended for bogs and naturally wet sites where the plants can form large clumps when grown in full sun. The plants will flower in both sun and shade. Plants may be propagated from seed but they are more easily started from cuttings or divisions. For cuttings, take a single-node stem cutting late in the season, just as the plants begin to bolt. Place the cutting in moist soil up to the base of the leaf. To propagate by division, divide the thick roots in the fall or early in the spring. Be careful to divide the leaves so that each section includes its own roots. Established plants will self-sow and stalks that lay on the ground will readily root from the nodes. Management The foliage may be partially clipped back after blooming to control the size and untidy appearance of the plant. The plants will flower a second time in the late summer or fall if the stems are removed soon after the first flowering period. This vigorous grower can be somewhat controlled by dividing the plants every two to four years and by regularly removing the stalks that slump to the ground before they have the opportunity to take root. Large clumps may be divided by first lifting the root mass from the soil with a shovel. Then divide the clump into pieces that contain four to six shoots each with roots attached. Immediately plant and water the divisions.

Pests and Potential Problems Virginia spiderwort is relatively pest and disease free. Snails will eat the young shoots.

Cultivars, Improved and Selected Materials (and area of origin) These plant materials are somewhat available from commercial sources.

Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) office for more information. Look in the phone book under ”United States Government.” The Natural Resources Conservation Service will be listed under the subheading “Department of Agriculture.”

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