Tradescantia (Spiderwort): A Full Palette of Spring Color

tradescantia

Tradescantia, pronounced (trad-es-KANT-ee-uh) is commonly known as Spiderwort.

spiderwort-tradescantia
Spiderwort flowers when the sun comes up and closes its eyes as the sun moves to an afternoon position. This is why in our garden we call them Inky Winkies.

Red Cloud Tradescantia

Aboriginal Native Americans used these perennials for food and medicine. The new young shoots were eaten raw as a vegetable and the roots were dried and used as a tea for internal complaints. In fact, one variety was named after the highly respected Indian leader, Red Cloud, who waged a very successful campaign against the United States Army over control of Wyoming and Montana territories.

As it is a native wildflower, it is well-adapted to cool Rocky Mountain gardens. Self-hybridizing has given the species complex origins so most perennials in the spiderwort family are clumped together and designated as the Andersoniana Group.

tradescantia or spiderwort
‘Red Cloud’ Tradescantia, or Spiderwort. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens. ‘Red Cloud’ has never reseeded in my Idaho garden but the clump enlarges yearly so there are always divisions that can be dug and replanted. The ‘Red Cloud’ success rate is in the high 90s so there is never a need to purchase new plants or mess with seeds.

Spiderwort is an easy-going perennial in a family of easy-goers and grows well in the wide varieties of soil found in the mountains—even clay. It’s also not as fussy about pH factors in the soil and though most tradescantias prefer acidic soil, they grow well in alkaline as well. Vibrant colors of magenta/fuchsia are rarer than the many varieties of lavender-blue shades other tradescantias are famous for. Tradescantias are not highly noted for their bloom potential for their one cluster per stem buds open one at a time over about an eight-week period. But they bloom with a beautiful display of flowers that are open at the same time.  Tradescantia opens its eyes, or blooms, in the morning sun but by afternoon they close them up to take a nap. ‘Red Cloud’ often blooms all day.

Red Cloud tradescantia
‘Red Cloud’ grows in a neat rounded clump of loose jointed stems that still manages to look respectable until after it finishes blooming and the summer heats up. Then it looks floppy and will need cutting back to the ground.

In late spring and early summer, vibrant green leaves arch gracefully from jointed stems that, when weighted with flower buds, gives a tendency to sprawl. Fortunately, this variety’s smaller size helps curb this tendency until late summer when it gives up blooming and will require a short haircut to keep the flower border looking tidy. The collapse of the foliage is a trait that many gardeners can do without so tradescantia is not as popular as other perennials with all-season foliage. The solution is easy. Simply cut it back to the ground where a nice green grassy spot will look excellent.

Each one-inch flower opens for only a day but a mass of rounded, unique buds are clumped on the end of every stem so even if the blooms open gradually a few at a time, the plant will still be covered with sumptuous magenta blooms. The three-sided triangle-shaped flower petals have three sepals and three petals so tradescantia is often called Trinity Flower.

tradescantia detail
With petals shaped like a three-sided triangle, The three petals surround fuzzy-stemmed stamens.

Dividing ‘Red Cloud’ Tradescantia

For divisions, dig up the whole plant in spring as it breaks dormancy. Cut the root ball into sections, each with a strong shoot. Plant in average soil and watch your new plant thrive!

There are many varieties of Tradescantia that gardeners love, but remember, ‘Red Cloud’ is the best adapted for higher elevations. Other Andersonia Group of Tradescantias are taller and broader and not quite as hardy. When stems are cut, the plant releases a viscous secretion that dries into a thread-like silk, much like spider’s web. This characteristic may be responsible for the common name, Spiderwort.

Spiderwort floppy foilage
It’s unfortunate but spiderwort does not have great foliage to go along with its gorgeous flowers. The foliage is rough and course appearing and as soon as it finishes blooming it flops haphazardly. Planting taller spiderwort in mid-section of the flowerbed will help hide the floppy foliage.

Portfolio of Spiderwort Colors:

It’s the brilliant pallet of the Andersoniana flower colors with their contrasting yellow stamens that give this plant status in the garden. The variety of blossom colors is the result of the flower’s own hybridizing. A single spiderwort plant is self-sterile and will not produce seeds. In other words, unless there are two or more plants around, it will not produce seeds to hybridize. The resulting plant from seeds will not look exactly like the parents and this is how the species comes by its gorgeous array of jeweled colors. Bees love the sweet nectar and they also help in changing or enhancing blossom colors. All of the Andersoniana Group are self-hybridized from the original wildflower, tradescantia virginiana and they resemble each other in habit, but differ in flower color, plant size, and foliage color.

The dark richness of both the blooms and foliage are outstanding in the garden. Spiderwort’s deep blue colors are used to dye shoes.
tradescantia
The fluorescent brilliance of the amethyst colors of the flowers against the deep green foliage shine brightly out in a garden. Photo courtesy Walters Gardens

 

spiderwort
The soft lavenders of this exquisite spiderwort look so elegant that it’s hard to believe it was self-hybridized.
blue tradescantia spiderwort
The true blue clean look of this tradescantia is a very difficult color to find for a garden.

Tradescantia is not only beautiful but is adaptable to all kinds of environmental conditions and will grow in moist or dry, clay or sand, acid or alkaline soils. Seedlings take two years to bloom and will show up in sidewalk cracks, or clear across a road or parking lot! Wherever they grow they are beautiful! They do well in sun, partial shade or shade. Favorite habitats are meadows, woodlands or roadsides. A mass of different-colored spiderwort blooms will take your breath away and the foliage can be mowed when it collapses.

Spiderworts are right at home in cottage gardens where their rambunctious nature fits in comfortably. Companion plants are partial shade perennials that perform in July, August or September so they can fill in the void left after tradescantia foliage is cut. Tall liliums come up undisturbed near my foliage. Chocolate eupatorium with its shrub-like qualities cover me completely and corydalis that never stops blooming draws attention to itself away from me. Ligularia’s dark purple foliage grows tall and will completely hide me from view. It’s easy to have your cake and eat it too by allowing tradescantia to take the spring to summer shift and having other fine perennial companions give it cover so it can rest until next spring.

After the spiderwort blooms, the foliage seems to collapse and looks unruly. Cut any unsightly foliage to ground level so it can regroup and thicken, furnishing an attractive spot of fresh green grasslike ground cover to the late summer garden. Often the cutback will encourage a second round of sporadic bloom.

Fields of Spiderwort:

This quick video will give you the privilege of viewing an entire field of spiderwort (tradescantia) in bloom. Enjoy!

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