White Delights ~ Spiderwort

Tradescantia ohiensis

A Texas native, spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.) honors both John Tradescant the Elder (1570-1638) and his son, also named John. Both served as Keeper of his Master’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace, an estate occupied by Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England. One species,  Tradescantia virginiana, recalls John the Younger’s travels to Virginia in the 1630s, and the horticultural specimens he brought back to England.

Some say the plant’s common name comes from its angular leaves and stems, which vaguely resemble spider legs, but the Missouri Botanical Garden notes that when spiderwort stems are cut, “a viscous stem secretion is released which becomes threadlike and silky upon hardening, like a spider’s web.”

Because Tradescant the Elder had no sense of smell, he tended to favor visually interesting trees and flowers; I suspect he would have enjoyed the white spiderworts I discovered among a field of purple and blue in Dickinson, Texas, on March 14. I’ll occasionally find rose-colored spiderwort flowers, but these were the first white that I’d seen.

While this white flower is a natural variant, a cultivar known as T. ohiensis ‘Alba’ exists. It’s a pretty combination of white and lavender; gardeners who enjoy spiderworts, or white flowers, or unusual plants, might want to give it a try.


Comments always are welcome.
For a brief, interesting history of the Tradescants, their travels and collections, click here.

51 thoughts on “White Delights ~ Spiderwort

  1. My spiderworts are T. virginiana but the two are quite similar. And, as you know, I love the white ones that pop up in our garden. Yours though is even whiter as mine have a slight bit of blue tint to them (although that varies in tones and shades) and blue stamens. I wasn’t aware of the fact that the sap gets stringy like a web. I’ll have to see if ours do that.

    1. I wonder if you somehow ended up with the cultivated variety, or if yours were natural crosses? The vacant lot where I found this one was filled with flowers, and many of them were white. A neighbor said the blue ones show up every spring, but she never had seen a white one.

      What was especially interesting was the presence of white blue-eyed grass, too. Although I’ve read that genetics rather than environment account for sports, it was surprising to see two sorts of white variants in the same place.

      1. I am sure that, in one way or another, it was cultivated but as a white flower it is a natural variant according to GoBotany. At first they were all deep blue/purple and then white/pale blue ones started showing up. Funny you mentioned white blue-eyed grass. I happened upon some when walking Bentley in the neighborhood a week or two ago but someone mowed it before I got back.

  2. It is a beautiful flower and I would suspect that for most of us, as for Tradescant, the visual appeal of a plant would generally trump fragrance, even for those plants that have a strong, pleasant odour. It appears that WordPress has changed its requirements for leaving a comment and the past few times I have to fill in my details every time, which is getting to be a bit of a chore, especially if I view several WordPress blogs one after the other.

    1. The one example of fragrance being the primary appeal for me is lilacs. We don’t have them this far south, but if I could have one more whiff of that luscious perfume, I’d be a very happy woman.

      From time to time, I’m asked to fill in my information again, even on WordPress blogs. I’ve found that if I refresh the page, it almost always puts things to right. If I haven’t noticed that they’ve stripped my information until I’ve commented, I’ll highlight and copy the comment, then refresh the page and paste the comment back in.

      I have sent this exchange over to the WP gurus, so they can look at your information and see if there’s anything particular that’s causing the problem. It may be a day or so until I hear back, but they usually are good about prompt responses. Sometimes they change something on the back end, since they’re always tweaking things.

      Also: you mentioned your upgrade to Windows 10 on a new computer. That’s the sort of thing that can cause a glitch, too. It may be that when you have problems with a blog, resubscribing on your new machine can take care of it. Don’t ask me why — I don’t understand it. But I know such changes have made a difference for some people.

    1. I’d bet good money in dollars or pounds that they’re in a few English gardens. While the Tradescants’ collections formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum, I suspect examples of the flowers they collected are widespread.

    1. The pure white flowers are called ‘sports’ — they’re genetic aberrations that may or may not appear in successive years. The white cultivar with the lavender/blue stamens apparently is more stable, but they’re all pretty. I do enjoy white flowers; I’m especially fond of the gardenias, with their dark, glossy foliage.

  3. I love the three petals curved like a fountain basin, with the spray of gold in the middle. Much as I like the delicate white petals, the blue of the blue variety is simply too ravishing a shade for words.

    1. I’ve read that all the spiderwort species will interbreed easily, allowing a whole range of colors to emerge: lavender to deep purple to that blue that you love. I like your fountain comparison, too. If you look closely at the left side of the flower, you’ll see that some of the water splashed out.

  4. It is interesting that so many traveled the world to bring plants back to their countries. I often wonder how the plants made it aboard a ship and had to share water with the crew.

    1. I wondered the same thing when I read about the camels that were brought to Texas. There were even more complications with that little endeavor: food as well as water, cleaning the camels’ space, and probably keeping them upright in rough seas. Curiosity drives a lot of interesting behavior.

    1. Something about that Elder/Younger business kept nagging at me, and I finally remembered: Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, those famous Romans. While I was refreshing what I’d been taught about their lives, I found an unusual question in the list that Google provides: “Is Pliny the Younger still available?” I was fairly sure he wasn’t, but I was wrong. ‘Pliny the Younger’ also is a triple IPA beer released the first Friday in Febuary every year by the Russian River Brewing Company in California.
      How about that?

  5. A worthy -wort (no, the words aren’t related). It’s been years since I’ve come across a white one, and based on what you say about these being your first, they appear not to be common.

    1. When I did an image search, I found examples of white spiderworts from places like Minnesota and Arlington, Virginia, but most of the time, if I read the article, I discovered they were cultivars: some with lavender/blue stamens and others with pure white. I’m just glad to have found these before the mowers got to them. Two weeks later, the vacant lot was neat and tidy again.

      I was surprised to find white blue-eyed grass in the same vacant lot on the same day. I’m planning to show it next.

  6. I’ve seen the various pinks, purples, blues, but never a white one, though I know they exist. That’s a gorgeous shot. I’m charmed by the drop of dew–nice catch!

    1. It was fairly early on a damp morning, so dewdrops were everywhere. This was the best photo I could mange, though, since the clusters of flowers were so thick on some stems I couldn’t find a nice, clean shot. I certainly was excited to find the flowers. The vacant lot was full of both purple and white; I was past it before I decided to turn around for a second look. I’m certainly glad I did.

  7. “Keeper of his Master’s Silkworms” is a new one for me. I guess someone has to do it if the Master is prone to silkworm collecting. Beautiful shot, and beautiful flower.

    Regarding the comment identification information on WordPress, I’ve sometimes seen mine missing but if I switch over to a different browser it has always been there. I assume I just haven’t been logged on for a while on the first browser and the info has dropped off. Firefox hangs on to things the best for me.

    1. This is just a hunch, but I’d bet that the Mistress was as responsible for the silkworms as the Master. It seems that French Huguenots came to England in the 16th century, and they brought the art of silk weaving with them. Queen Henrietta Maria was French, and apparently wasn’t too keen on English life or arts; it wouldn’t surprise me to know that she had a gown or two made of silk from her very own silkworms.

      I use FF, too, and it seems to have improved over time. The last two issues I had with WordPress turned out to be the result of some changes they’d made on the back end that affected my theme. They were good enough to change the CSS for me, and all was well.

    1. I’d forgotten this one. It’s so common, and the name rolls off the tongue so easily, I’d never stopped to consider that it is ‘another wort.’ They’re all pretty, but I do love the unusual specimens that show up from time to time.

  8. Does this one have a pleasant scent? I guess I’m in Tradescant the Elder’s position, unable to smell this beauty from a photo. Still, it’s lovely. There’s something mighty special about a snow-white flower, especially in a field of purple and blue!

    1. I don’t remember any scent, Debbie. I get pretty close when I’m trying to photograph them, but even with my nose tucked into the middle, there’s not much fragrance. Each flower lasts only a day, so the plant may put its energy into producing color, instead. There’s a lot I don’t know, that’s for sure — but the bees and flies and butterflies certainly can find them!

    1. Posting another ‘wort’ was accidental in a sense, since it was the white form of the spiderwort I was most interested in sharing. Still, it seems as though the selection was wort-while.

  9. I have always been fascinated with etymology, and in particular how species got their names, whether it is the vernacular or scientic names. This is so interesting regarding this species. And a beautiful flower, too.

    1. What I’ve increasingly noticed over the years is how often the names provide a window into human history. It’s one thing to say, “So — this is named for a botanist named Tradescant,” and quite another to begin reading about his life. It’s a strange and winding road that leads from a Texas spiderwort to an English queen who was involved in the politics that eventually led to the destruction of Oatlands palace, but it’s an immensely interesting road. If only I had the time to follow all of the roads that pique my interest!

      1. After our discussions here on etymology I was inspired and started to look into a few species. I might try and find the roots for all of them featured on my site. I am still shielding so have the time, at least. Some of them do reveal more than we at first realise, and is an insight into how the minds of the great botanists, zoologists, etc, who named them worked back then.

  10. The only 3-petaled flower I’ve ever seen is trillium, glad to know there’s another, and this one’s lovely. Thank you for the bio/history, very interesting! And I’m sure you can do up a poem better than this:

    Tradescant the Elder had no sense of smell
    But flowers and gardens, he did very well
    To the Arctic, to Africa, and even to Paris
    He’d go to find beauty, perhaps even bliss.

    1. I wouldn’t add or subtract one word to your verse — I’d only make the verse worse! I did go digging around in my archives, and found this photo of a “normal” spiderwort so you could see the three petals more clearly. They certainly are pretty flowers, and some of the colors really glow.

  11. Ooh, flashing back to spring photos! Interesting history! I’ve been wanting to get to know more about how our plants were named, especially those after botanists who never came to the Americas, but also wanting to understand the colonialism behind those naming conventions—like, what did the Native Americans call them before we arrived?

    1. That’s an interesting thought: plants named after botanists who never came here. It never had occurred to me that such a thing would exist, since most seem to carry the names of those who first identified them: Lewis, Lindheimer, etc. I have discovered a lot of lesser-known explorers and botanists through plant names; it’s been very interesting.

      Finding Native American names is harder. The one place I sometimes bump into that kind of information is in the foraging blogs, like Merriwether’s. I often forget to check his blog when I find a new species; I need to do that more often.

    1. I love flowers that are naturally white, and discovering that many naturally blue or pink species sometimes produce white variants amazed me. I have a small pile of ‘white delights’ to share — even in photos, they make me happy! I’m glad you enjoyed this one, Tanja.

  12. I looked at it closely, and I knew I had it also in my blog. I have the Tradescantia pallida (Purple Heart), Aka Wandering Jew. Others from the family are the Commelina ‘dayflowers’. Yours in white is lovely.

    1. I remember when you posted the T. pallida, and how it surprised me that what I’d always considered just a nice, midwestern, grocery-store houseplant was part of the genus. I think the dayflowers are delightful, too; their resemblance to the spiderworts is more obvious than some other members of the family.

      One interesting thing about these white flowers that’s just barely visible in the photo is the way the dew turned the petals almost transparent. As they dried, they lost that quality, and became more like ordinary petals. You can see some of the transparency along their edges.

    1. I love all of their colors: pink, deep purple, blue. For a while I thought they all were low growers, and then I found some nearly two feet tall. Different species, different habits — but all pleasing.

    1. I’ve read that all of the species produce different colors occasionally, partly because of genetics and partly because they cross-pollinate so easily. Apparently, it can be hard to determine species in the wild, especially where more than one species is native. No matter: they’re all pretty. I certainly was surprised to see white and purple plants mixed about half-and-half in this vacant lot.

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