Spiderwort Sings the Blues

May 20, 2012 | By | Comments (20)

Spiderwort 003_phixr
Grumpy is a sucker for plants with blue flowers, because there just aren’t many of them. And there are even fewer that have blue flowers, bloom for a long time, grow in really crummy soil, have no serious pests, and present the average Joe Sixpack gardener with a challenge roughly equivalent to putting on his own underwear (a task Grumpy has proudly been been performing since the age of 10).

This is one. Meet the spiderwort.

Chances are you’ve seen it before, because two species of it, Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) and Ohio spiderwort (T. ohiensis) can be found throughout the entire eastern U.S. except Florida. Growing 1 to 2 feet tall, spiderwort features long, slender, arching iris-like leaves. Large clusters of rounded flowers buds stand above the foliage. Each bud produces a unique, three-part blue flower with yellow anthers. Individual flowers last but a single day, but there are so many buds the plant blooms continuously from late spring to midsummer.   

Plutonium? What Plutonium?

Look closely at a bloom and you’ll notice tiny hairs covering the stamens. Under normal circumstances, they’re the same blue color as the flower. However, as Felder Rushing and Grumpy revealed in their classic, best-selling book, Passalong Plants, (available at amazon.com and still the best gift anyone could receive), in the presence of radiation the hairs turn pink. Thus, spiderwort is an essential part of any garden near community nuke plants, such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Springfield, Oregon, home of “The Simpsons.”

Spiderwort 002_phixrPraise be! The hairs are be blue! I can put away the duct tape and hazmat suit!

Bigger and Better

Native spiderworts aren’t all that impressive, because flowers are small, about a half-inch in diameter. But you know plant breeders weren’t going to leave it that way. By crossing Virginia and Ohio spiderworts with some other species, they created a much showier hybrid, Tradescantia x andersoniana. Not only are the flowers up to three times bigger, but they also add pink, white, and purple to the flower mix. Big Dipper Farm is an excellent mail-order source. Grumpy is partial to a very deep blue one called ‘Zwanenburg Blue.’ If you’re into gaudy plants that would have made Liberace proud, try ‘Sweet Kate’ (available from Plant Delights and Big Dipper — thanx for the pic, Tony). It combines deep purple blooms with golden foliage so bright you can see it from the moon.

Tradescantia_Sweet_Kate_phixrWarning! Protective eye wear is required before viewing ‘Sweet Kate.’

How to Grow

As Grumpy mentioned before, spiderwort isn’t fussy. Although it likes fertile, moist soil, it also grows in dry, infertile soil and crummy, red clay. Full sun is OK, but in hot summer climates, give it some light shade to make blooming last longer. After it finishes blooming, the foliage gets ratty-looking, so cut it back. This often spurs a new flush of growth and a second wave of flowers. Keep in mind that spiderwort seeds itself all over, so be vigilant about pulling out unwanted seedlings. Of course, seedlings that are easy to share make it a great passalong plant. You can also divide it.

Spiderwort 001_phixrYou know a plant is tough when it grows in a crack in the pavement.

How Spiderwort Got Its Name

A young lad was working alone in his garden one day and stopped to pick a beautiful blue flower whose stamens had turned pink. A small radioactive spider hiding on the flower bit him and gave him the superhuman ability to grow in almost any soil. Thus was born “Spiderwort Man.” The first couple of movies were big hits, but people soon tired of a superhero who just sat there and bloomed, and enthusiasm for another sequel waned.

OK, here’s the real story. Spiderwort gets its name from the sticky sap that comes out when you cut a stem. The sap dries into white, thread-like stuff that resembles a spider’s web.

I like my first explanantion better.

COMMENTS

  1. Ann

    My daddy called this snotweed for the same sticky sap that you refer to.

    May 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm
  2. LaUnika

    I’ve been told by native B’hamers that these are called “Kiss me by the fence”.

    May 20, 2012 at 11:49 pm
  3. ck

    I’ve heard them called cow snot. And I’ve been pulling all of mine out. Tired of the slime and floppiness.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:00 am
  4. Crystal

    I have one of these that I have been mowing around for years. It is so pretty for so long and I can’t bear to mow over it while it is blooming. Perhaps being in the middle of a so-called lawn area, it is kept from spreading by the mower. I also have a white one which I doubt was from
    purposeful breeding. I got it from a friend who I am sure did not buy it. It also is a long bloomer. A real joy. I have been thinking about putting some of the purple ones with a group of wild day lilies (ditch lilies)

    May 21, 2012 at 8:21 am
  5. Jean

    I love spiderwort and have several clumps that I pass by every day as I go in and out of the house. Always dependable about blooming and its blue! What is the plant in the bed in the first picture? The white and green leaf? I want some!

    May 21, 2012 at 10:10 am
  6. UrsulaV

    I love this stuff! It’s a consistently solid plant for me, hasn’t re-seeded too badly, and the cultivar with the purple new foliage is quite attractive. (Sweet Kate also hasn’t been QUITE that saturated!) Bees love it.

    May 21, 2012 at 10:31 pm
  7. esh

    You spelled the species name wrong for both of these!
    I do like spiderwort.

    May 22, 2012 at 10:14 am
  8. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Thanks, Esh! Just noticed this and will correct. Sometimes this happens when you’re writing at 5 in the morning.
    Jean,
    Not sure what the variegated plant is. Looks related to Japanese knotweed, but I know it’s not that.

    May 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm
  9. esh

    Could the variegated plant be Persicaria virginiana ‘Painter’s palette’?

    May 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm
  10. carolyn choi

    I liked your first explanation better too.
    We called it the “alley ” plant in Chicago. Have always loved its blue color but couldn’t grow it in my small urban garden there or like kudzu it would’ve taken over.

    May 23, 2012 at 10:55 am
  11. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Esh,
    You just might have nailed it.

    May 28, 2012 at 3:02 pm
  12. Jean

    Thanks…I am looking it up now. Looks like my spiderwort is going to get a major haircut as it is falling everywhere. Worse this year than ever.

    May 29, 2012 at 1:54 pm
  13. Colin

    I love the intense blue of your plant’s blooms. Mine is much more of a purple color, and not particularly drought tolerant. I have to do rescue watering on it quite a bit around August.

    May 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm
  14. Kylee from Our Little Acre

    Hi Steve! I love my tradescantias. I don’t have T. ohioensis, which is kind of funny, given that I live in Ohio. But I’ve got two large clumps of ‘Sweet Kate’ and a clump of ‘Bilberry Ice’ which is a pale shade of lavender. It seems to be doing better with our hot dry weather than when I keep it watered a lot.

    June 13, 2012 at 4:01 pm
  15. Kylee from Our Little Acre

    Oh, and I do think your variegated plant in the first photo is Variegated Japanese Knotweed. I have some of that and it looks just like that.

    June 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm
  16. Jenni

    When you say to “cut it back,” do you mean cut back just the leaves or the entire stem, flower buds (that seem to have ceased opening for me) and all? Thanks!

    July 13, 2012 at 10:10 am
  17. Jenni

    When you say to “cut it back,” do you mean cut back just the leaves or the entire stem, flower buds (that seem to have ceased opening for me) and all? Thanks!

    July 13, 2012 at 10:14 am
  18. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Jenni,
    I mean cut it back to a few inches tall.

    July 13, 2012 at 3:23 pm
  19. weeworld

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    August 19, 2012 at 9:15 pm
  20. msunderstood

    “…can be found throughout the entire eastern U.S. except Florida.”
    We do have these in Florida! At least we certainly have them here in the panhandle (Pensacola area).

    April 11, 2013 at 4:10 pm