Spiderwort is a low maintenance native perennial


Some people call them widow’s tears. Others confuse them with daylilies. Still others have never even heard of them. Spiderworts are tough native plants that don’t choke out the rest of your garden residents. Our most common one is the Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana).

More and more people are looking for native plants to add to their landscaping. Naturally, they also seek out perennials as these plants don’t need to be planted every year. Usually, water usage is a concern and spiderworts are miserly on water once they become established.

Gardeners desiring to help the environment also want plants that attract butterflies and pollinators. Spiderworts do. Several species of native butterflies and bees love them.

Spiderworts tend to grow in clumps.  They grow best in moist, well-drained and slightly acidic soil, but they tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. They perform best in partial shade but will tolerate full sun as well as shady locations. They won’t bloom much in shade.

Foliage is grass-like and resembles that of daylily or spider plant. Triangular shaped flowers with three petals grow in clusters on the ends of stalks and are usually blue to purple. Some plants have white or pink flowers. I’ve also read where air pollution can influence flower color and make normally blue types light pink. Individual blooms only last for one day.

Walk through any old cemetery or abandoned homestead and you will likely find some. Maybe that’s where the “widow’s tears” comes from. They’re rarer in wilderness places and are considered threatened in much of North Carolina. You should not collect them from the wild.

Spiderworts bloom in mid spring to early summer. Deadheading the old flowers will lengthen the blooming period, so it’s a good practice if bloom is what you’re after. Let flowers mature if you wish to collect seed.

Spiderworts transplant easily as they have a strong fibrous root system. Usually they will benefit from dividing every three years or so and they propagate successfully this way. They also establish readily from seed.

Spiderworts have few insect or disease problems. However, slugs and snails can be a problem to young shoots. While occasionally damaged, they are far from the first choice to be gobbled up by deer, rabbits and the like.

Spiderworts originally got their name because they were used to treat spider bites. When crushed, stems and leaves emit a sticky sap. This sap was applied to the wound. It was also used for general itching caused by mosquito and other insect bites. Plant roots also have laxative properties.

Flowers and leaves are both edible for most people. Leaf sap causes minor skin irritation to some, so try a small quantity first to see if you are affected. Leaves and flowers can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as a pot herb and both are used as herbal teas.

Culinarily speaking, I’m not a big fan so I don’t collect them. They don’t bother me, but they don’t store well in the refrigerator. If you forage some they must be prepared right away or they will turn to black mush.

Blooming widow’s tears covered with dew

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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2 Responses to Spiderwort is a low maintenance native perennial

  1. joanneeddy says:

    Hi Ted! I just moved a bunch of plants from my Edenton garden here to Willow Spring….including some spiderwort. I had it along with some Hellebore, Solomon’s Seal, and Forget me not in a bed all around a crepe myrtle where my youngest grandkids had their fairy and gnome garden. I love the Widow’s Tears reference. What a great book name that would make! It made me think of the mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert whose book titles are all named for herbs. Her heroine, China Bayles, runs a herb shop and the book always weaves in the titled herb into the story andteaches some about it. She even does recipes about it sometimes.

    Also, just noticed the summation above about your book series…Well done! Sure hope you get it published some day! Best to you and Roberta…Joanne

  2. tedmanzer says:

    Thanks Joanne. Never Alone (the book about the importance of faith) is in the works with Christian Faith Publishing. I should have some proofs soon and the release is scheduled for late summer or early fall. I’ll keep you posted as things come together.

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