The Spiderwort

Missouri Native Species | May 26, 2020

A wild patch of land near my neighborhood produces an incredible assortment of wildflowers every Spring. This field will usually contain White Hawthorn, white and red Clovers, Columbines, Asters, Blue Wild Indigo and the Spiderwort. During our extensive time in observing social distancing, I have been visiting this field daily as part of my morning walk routine. I plan to return to the field throughout the Spring and Summer to observe flora and report more on other native species.

The field filled with round-leaved ragwort. Pictured below: part of the paved path.

There are a few paved paths in this field, so I tend to include it during my pre-dawn morning run. Passing through the field as the sun rises is a highlight of my morning. I hope the City of Chesterfield will continue to preserve this land so that residents may continue to enjoy its natural beauty.

Characteristics of the Smooth Spiderwort

binomial name: Tradescantia ohiensis

Family: Commelinaceae

Today we are taking a closer look at Missouri native flower, the Smooth Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis). Incredibly, there are more than 70 species of Tradescantia, 8 of which are native to Missouri.

The Spiderwort is commonly found along roadsides and in fields, prairies, and meadows. Petals are triangular in shape and vary in hues from pink to blue to violet. White flowers have been found, but are very rare. The flowers grow in terminal clusters, with each flower blossoming in the morning and only lasting 1-2 days. Though the individual bloom time is short, there are many flowers per plant, providing multiple blooms over several months. Round stalks can grow as high as 60 cm, giving the plant a significant height advantage above the surrounding plant life.

Flowers grow in terminal clusters. Round stalks grow up to 60 cm in height.

Flowers bloom in the Spring and become dormant during the Summer months. Spiderwort can reappear and even bloom a second time as the weather cools into the Fall season. These are perennial plants, meaning they will bloom for two or more consecutive years. The plant is hermaphroditic and can self-seed, making it a prolific multiplier and therefore, can be considered a nuisance.

One of the more interesting facts about the spiderwort is that scientists use it as a bioindicator. The flower’s pollen-bearing stamen hairs will mutate and change color when exposed to radiation. When exposed to as little as 150 millirems of radiation, the spiderwort stamen hairs will mutate from blue to pink. To put that number into perspective, the average human is exposed to 610 millirems per year. Half of that exposure comes directly from our environment.

The fluffy stamen hairs of this Tradescantia are blue. The flower has not been exposed to any unusual amounts of radiation.

These bright yellow anthers are full of pollen.

Abundant strap-like leaves give the spiderwort a grassy appearance.


The Spiderwort is native to the Americas. Famed botanist Carl Linnaeus named the genus Tradescantia in honor of English naturalist John Tradescant the Elder, gardener to the royals. Tradescant traveled the world to collect plant specimens and served as Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms to King Charles I. His legacy would continue with his son, John Tradescant the Younger.

Tradescant the Younger traveled to the colony of Virginia several times and would bring Tradescantia virginiana, the Virginia spiderwort, to England in 1629. The new plant was immediately popular among gardeners. English gardeners cultivated the spiderwort as a garden flower and as a result, many hybrid species have been created. To date, there are approximately 75 species of Tradescantia.

A field full of spiderwort.

Medicinal Uses

An edible plant, the many societies use the Spiderwort for culinary and medicinal purposes. Culinary aficionados cut the flowers and toss them into salads as an edible garnish. Spiderwort plants possess expectorant properties. Many people use the roots and petals to make spiderwort tea, a natural laxative. Spiderwort is also used by many cultures to combat a myriad of ailments ranging from excessive perspiration to kidney pain to menstrual pain relief. Finely ground and mashed, the plant can also be used as a treatment to heal wounds and external hemorrhoids.

The Spiderwort is a highly versatile and useful plant loved by many gardeners. I will continue to visit this field throughout the Spring and Summer to report on more native species as they bloom. Be sure to check future posts about our lovely Missouri Native Species.

Sources: Missouri Department of Conservation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Missouri Botanical Garden, New York Times Archives

Technical: Fujifilm x100V