By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
Yet another wildflower favorite and must-have for the garden is the spiderwort (Tradescantia) plant. These interesting flowers not only offer something different to the landscape but are extremely easy to grow and care for.
So how did such a lovely plant get such an unusual name? While no one may know for certain, some people think the plant was named for the way its flowers hang down like spiders. Others believe it comes from its medicinal properties, as it was once used to treat spider bites.
Regardless of how the plant got its name, spiderwort is well worth having in the garden.
About Spiderwort Flowers
The three-petaled spiderwort flowers are usually blue to purple, but may also be pink, white or red. They only remain open for a day (blooming in morning hours and closing at night), but the multiple flowers will continually bloom for up to four to six weeks in summer. The plant’s foliage consists of arching grass-like leaves that will grow about a foot or two in height, depending on the variety.
Since spiderwort plants grow in clumps, they’re great for use in borders, edging, woodland gardens and even containers. You can even grow spiderwort as an indoor plant if garden space is limited.
Growing spiderworts is easy and you’ll find the plants to be quite resilient. They’re hardy in USDA plant hardiness zones 4-9 and will tolerate more than what one would expect. Spiderworts typically grow in moist, well-drained and acidic (pH 5 to 6) soil, though I have found the plants to be quite forgiving in the garden and tolerant of many soil conditions. Spiderwort plants do best in partial shade but will do equally well in sunny areas as long as the soil is kept moist.
Spiderworts can be grown from purchased plants or propagated through division, cuttings or seed. Plant them in spring about 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm.) deep and 8 to 12 inches (20-30.5 cm.) apart. Stem cuttings in summer or fall will easily root in the soil. Seeds can be sown outdoors in either fall or early spring and should be lightly covered.
If starting spiderwort seeds indoors, do so about eight weeks prior to transplanting outside. It should take anywhere from 10 days to six weeks for germination to occur. Hardened seedlings can be transplanted outdoors about a week after the last spring frost.
Spiderwort as an Indoor Plant
You can grow spiderwort indoors too as long as suitable conditions are given. Provide the plant with either a soilless mix or loam-based potting compost and keep it in bright filtered light. You should also pinch out the growing tips to encourage bushier growth.
Allow it to spend warm spring and summers days outdoors, if feasible. During its active growth, water moderately and apply a balanced liquid fertilizer every four weeks. Water sparingly in winter.
Care of Spiderwort Plants
These plants like to be kept fairly moist, so water regularly, especially if you’re growing them in containers. Cutting the plants back once flowering has ceased can often promote a second bloom and will help prevent re-seeding. Cut the stems back about 8 to 12 inches (20-30.5 cm.) from the ground.
Since spiderwort is a vigorous grower, it’s probably a good idea to divide the plants in spring every three years or so.
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How to Grow Spiderwort Indoors
The Spruce / Krystal Slagle
The gardening world has many instances where a single common name is associated with more than one plant species, and such is the case with the houseplant we know as spiderwort. The unique name is actually used to refer to several different plant species within the Tradescantia genus, which includes at least 75 different herbaceous perennial plants.
Native to the tropical climates of Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean, some spiderwort plants are regarded as noxious weeds, some are prized as garden plants, and some, like Tradescantia zebrina are grown primarily as indoor houseplants. Like their garden-varieties counterparts, the houseplant varieties produce flowers with three petals, although they are not particularly showy in these species. The blooms are white, purple, or pink—depending on species and variety—and appear regularly.
When tended to indoors, spiderwort plants can be started and grown year-round (though they should be planted in early fall if grown outdoors). They will grow rapidly and can become invasive in their outdoor environment if left to their own devices—however, indoors the plants remain more contained.
The simplest way to propagate spiderwort is by using nursery plants or taking a plant from a friend. Spiderwort spreads quickly through underground runners so once you have an established plant, you can get many more through divisions.
You can also grow spiderwort from seed. Plant the seed outdoors in the fall. Prepare the soil by digging compost or manure into it to a depth of 8 inches. Rake the soil so it’s even and plant the seeds 1/8 inch deep.
If you want to start seeds indoors, you’ll need to provide a cold period to break dormancy. Mix sand and perlite in a plastic bag. Add 1 tablespoon hot water and mix thoroughly. Mix the seeds with the sand mixture and store in the refrigerator for up to 4 months. Remove the bag from the refrigerator 8 weeks before the last frost. Fill a seed-starting tray with a starter mix. Spread the sand mixture evenly over the starter mix. Spray the seed tray with water from a spray bottle and cover it with plastic wrap. Place the tray in a warm location and spray it as needed to keep the mixture evenly moist. Once the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic wrap and move the tray to a sunny window or place it under grow lights. Continue to water as needed. Transplant the seedlings outdoors when they stand 4 inches high.
‘Burgundy’ is a cultivated variety of the species T. zebrina, whose species name means “striped like a zebra.”
The species is also sometimes referred to by the alternate scientific names T. pendula, Zebrina pendula, or Cyanotis zebrina. In its native range, it thrives from Mexico to Colombia.
The ‘Burgundy’ cultivar of T. zebrina has leaves that are a deep burgundy hue with silvery green outlines on the top sides, and purple-colored undersides.
If you’re considering this for an addition to your cottage garden, it will grow outdoors as a perennial in Zones 8a-12a.
‘Burgundy’ is available for purchase in three-inch starter pots from Hirt’s Gardens via Walmart.
The bright blue flowers of Ohio Spiderwort bloom for an extended period from late spring into midsummer. The blue-green grass-like foliage and upright form are attractive in any garden or meadow. Spiderworts bloom profusely in the morning and early …
|Soil Type||Clay, Loam, Sand|
|Soil Moisture||Dry, Medium, Moist|
|Sun Exposure||Full Sun, Partial|
|Height||2' - 4'|
|Bloom Color||Lavender, Blue|
|Bloom Time||June, July|
|Zones||3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9|
|Seeds per Oz||8000|
|Propagation Treatment||Moist Stratification|
|Days to Moist Stratify||90 days|
|Direct Sowing Time||Fall|
The bright blue flowers of Ohio Spiderwort bloom for an extended period from late spring into midsummer. The blue-green grass-like foliage and upright form are attractive in any garden or meadow. Spiderworts bloom profusely in the morning and early parts of the day, and then close-up in the heat of the afternoon, unless it is cloudy or cooler. This conserves energy and allows the plant to continue to flower over a longer period. Plant Ohio Spiderwort along with Smooth Penstemon for a fantastic bloom combination. Include some later-blooming prairie flowers and grasses near by, as the late summer foliage of Spiderwort tends to look a little worn.
Also known as Bluejacket, Tradescantia ohiensis will tolerate very light shade, but flowers best in full sun. Very adaptable and easy to grow in a wide range of soils, it will self-seed readily under ideal circumstances. Plants can be cut back to 6 inches high in late summer when the foliage starts to decline, which will help minimize the self-seeding, as well. Mature clumps can be divided every few years.
Native plants can be grown outside of their native range in the appropriate growing conditions. This map shows the native range, as well as the introduced range, of this species.
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Sow seeds in the garden in the early spring or late in the fall. Cover them lightly with a light soil mix and tamp down. Space the seeds about four to eight inches apart. When planted in the spring, it can take 10 days to six weeks for the seeds to germinate. It is better to plant them in the fall and let them go through the cold period. Divisions of older plants can be planted either in early spring or in autumn.
- Spiderwort requires well drained but moist garden soil.
- It grows the best in a rich soil with a pH of 5 or 6, but it will grow just about anywhere.
Water regularly if there is no rain. Once it seems to stop flowering, cut the plant back to about three-fourths of its height. It will grow during the summer and bloom again in the fall. Divide the plants every three years. If this is not done, the plants will get entirely too big and may even stop blooming. Spiderwort spreads and can be somewhat invasive. It spreads through underground threads and forms a colony of clumps.
- Water regularly if there is no rain.
- If this is not done, the plants will get entirely too big and may even stop blooming.
Spiderwort Hybrids - Tradescantia X andersoniana
Few perennials offer a full summer of bloom but in the right location and with the proper care, spiderworts can provide colour all season. The blooms may last only a day, but the display goes on and on.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 12, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously pubished articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
The garden spiderworts are part of the genus Tradescantia, a genus containing some 50 or so species, all native to the Americas. Most are tender, trailing plants commonly grown as groundcovers in tropical areas or as houseplants in northern areas. There are a few hardy herbaceous spiderworts all native to the U.S., but most important from a gardening perspective is T. x andersoniana, a series of complex USDA zone 5 (zone 4 with protection) hybrids developed from T. ohiensis, T. virginiana and T. subaspera.
Most gardeners recognize spiderworts. They generally grow 45 to 60 cm in height, are somewhat leggy with narrow, strap-like leaves and terminal clusters of three-petaled flowers. The flowers are about 2.5 cm across and consists of three triangular petals and prominent fuzzy yellow stamens. The individual blossoms last only one day but are produced sequentially over a period of several weeks. They start blooming in early spring in the south but not until mid-summer in the north. In southern areas, plants can be cut back after blooming to provide a second flush later in the season.
The species are typically blue, but white and pink forms are known in the wild. It is from these colours, that all the modern hybrids have been developed. The palette now includes white, various shades of blue, lavender, purple, pink and magenta. Even the foliage can vary from bright yellow to purplish.
A variety of spiderworts illustrating their general growth form. From left to right is 'Osprey', 'Concord Grape' and 'Little Doll' growing among Hosta 'Janet'
Culture is quite easy. They seem to thrive in any well-drained soil, whether acidic or alkaline, clay or sandy. In the north, they bloom best in full sun but further south, shade from hot afternoon sun is recommended to prevent the leaf edges from burning. Individual plants are clump-forming and can regenerate from detached roots. They can be prolific self-seeders, so dead-heading is recommended to prevent unwanted volunteers.
It is only recently that I started growing spiderworts. A plant with one-day flowers did not provide much appeal in my opinion. However, I was given one plant as a gift so I had little choice but to keep it. Well, as it happened, I ended up being very impressed. The plant starting blooming in July and kept on blooming through September! That was enough to convince me of their merit. I now have 10 cultivars and am still looking for more. I have read that they can be invasive in southern areas but other than a few volunteer seedlings, they have been well-behaved in my USDA zone 5b garden.
The standard species are dark blue. Modern blue cultivars have larger flowers than the wild forms. I grow 'Zwanenberg Blue', but another similar cultivar is 'Blue Stone'. For slightly more purple tones, try 'Leonora' or 'Purple Dome'. For lighter lavender purple I grow 'J. C. Weguelin'. A shade lighter is 'Purple Profusion'. The best light blue is 'Iris Pritchard', a cultivar I am still trying to track down.
The cultivars 'Zwanenberg', 'J. C. Weguelin' and 'Leonora'
The oldest red cultivar (really reddish-pink) is 'Rubra' which has smallish flowers. The more modern version is 'Red Cloud' with flowers about 50% larger. Another similar cultivar is 'Carmine Glow'. For more pure pink, try ‘Valour', 'Pauline' or ‘Charlotte'.
The cultivars 'Rubra' and 'Red Cloud'
The original white spiderwort was ‘Alba', again with relatively small flowers. 'Snow Cap' has much bigger flowers but the largest flowers of all spiderworts has to be 'Innocence'.
'Innocence', one of the largest flowered cultivars
Several newer cultivars have flowers in pastel shades. They are essentially white nicely tinted with blue, lavender or pink . These include 'Osprey' (tinted purple-blue), 'Bilberry Ice' (tinted lavender) or 'Pink Chablis' (tinted pink).
The cultivars 'Osprey' and 'Bilberry Ice'
There are three lovely dwarf spiderworts I can recommend, all which stay around 30 cm. They have finer foliage than the standard spiderworts. These include 'Satin Doll' (bright pink), 'Little Doll' (light lavender) and 'Little White Doll'.
The miniature cultivars 'Satin Doll' and 'Little Doll'
If foliage is your preference, then its hard to beat ‘Blue and Gold', also known as ‘Sweet Kate'. This one has bright yellow foliage with contrasting deep blue flowers. Stunning! For a more subtle effect, try some of the cultivars with distinct blue-green foliage which include 'Concord Grape' (purple), 'Red Grape' (dark reddish-pink), 'Hawaiian Punch' (bright reddish-pink) or 'Perrine's Pink' (bright pink).
The cultivars 'Concord Grape' and 'Sweet Kate'
I expect more cultivars will be released over time. In my own garden, I am getting volunteer seedlings which are like none of the cultivars I currently own. I am keeping my eye on a light pink seedling which has great potential!
A self-seeded unnamed pink cultivar that arose in my garden
I have to admit that spiderworts don't put on a grand show like Rudbeckia, Asters or Phlox. However, their long blooming season is hard to beat in any perennial. Now that I have them, I don't know how I went without them for so long!
About Todd Boland
About Todd Boland
I reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.