The plant world is full of complicated surprises. A few days ago, I wrote about Widow's tears (Commelina sp.), also called dayflower. Some of you may know that the spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.) also goes by the names Widow's tears and dayflower. Both of these plants belong in the same family, the Commelinaceae. But they're in different tribes. Yes, tribes. (I told you it was complicated.)
The spiderwort is a New World native. The blossoms range in color from pale pink and lavender to purple, and usually have three symmetrical petals. Jim Long has an interesting post and some photos of the spiderworts he grows in his garden. Spiderworts have been used by Native Americans for both food and medicine. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked like other greens. The stalks can be prepared like asparagus.
Recently, according to an informative post at EattheWeeds researchers have discovered that the cells of the spiderwort's stamen hairs are “bioassays for ambient radiation levels.” In other words, the tiny blue hairs turn pink when they're exposed to gamma radiation. If you're worried about radiation levels in your garden, consult the nearest spiderwort.
The spiderwort's genus, Tradescantia, is named for a pair of sixteenth/seventeenth-century English naturalists John Tradescant the Elder and John the Younger (we would call them "senior" and "junior"), who traveled far and wide collecting plants and seeds and taking them back to England. John Senior became Keeper of His Majesty's Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms for Charles I. John Junior went to Virgina and brought back everything he could lay his hands on: American trees like Magnolias, Bald Cypress and the Tulip tree, and garden plants, such as phlox and asters and, yes, spiderwort.
The other name, Widow's tears? When the flower wilts at the end of the day (dayflower), it dissolves into a fluid jelly, like tears.