Spiderwort Sings the Blues
Grumpy is a sucker for plants with blue flowers, because there just aren't many of them. And there are even fewer that have blue flowers, bloom for a long time, grow in really crummy soil, have no serious pests, and present the average Joe Sixpack gardener with a challenge roughly equivalent to putting on his own underwear (a task Grumpy has proudly been been performing since the age of 10).
This is one. Meet the spiderwort.
Chances are you've seen it before, because two species of it, Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) and Ohio spiderwort (T. ohiensis) can be found throughout the entire eastern U.S. except Florida. Growing 1 to 2 feet tall, spiderwort features long, slender, arching iris-like leaves. Large clusters of rounded flowers buds stand above the foliage. Each bud produces a unique, three-part blue flower with yellow anthers. Individual flowers last but a single day, but there are so many buds the plant blooms continuously from late spring to midsummer.
Plutonium? What Plutonium?
Look closely at a bloom and you'll notice tiny hairs covering the stamens. Under normal circumstances, they're the same blue color as the flower. However, as Felder Rushing and Grumpy revealed in their classic, best-selling book, Passalong Plants, (available at amazon.com and still the best gift anyone could receive), in the presence of radiation the hairs turn pink. Thus, spiderwort is an essential part of any garden near community nuke plants, such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Springfield, Oregon, home of "The Simpsons."
Praise be! The hairs are be blue! I can put away the duct tape and hazmat suit!
Bigger and Better
Native spiderworts aren't all that impressive, because flowers are small, about a half-inch in diameter. But you know plant breeders weren't going to leave it that way. By crossing Virginia and Ohio spiderworts with some other species, they created a much showier hybrid, Tradescantia x andersoniana. Not only are the flowers up to three times bigger, but they also add pink, white, and purple to the flower mix. Big Dipper Farm is an excellent mail-order source. Grumpy is partial to a very deep blue one called 'Zwanenburg Blue.' If you're into gaudy plants that would have made Liberace proud, try 'Sweet Kate' (available from Plant Delights and Big Dipper -- thanx for the pic, Tony). It combines deep purple blooms with golden foliage so bright you can see it from the moon.
Warning! Protective eye wear is required before viewing 'Sweet Kate.'
How to Grow
As Grumpy mentioned before, spiderwort isn't fussy. Although it likes fertile, moist soil, it also grows in dry, infertile soil and crummy, red clay. Full sun is OK, but in hot summer climates, give it some light shade to make blooming last longer. After it finishes blooming, the foliage gets ratty-looking, so cut it back. This often spurs a new flush of growth and a second wave of flowers. Keep in mind that spiderwort seeds itself all over, so be vigilant about pulling out unwanted seedlings. Of course, seedlings that are easy to share make it a great passalong plant. You can also divide it.
You know a plant is tough when it grows in a crack in the pavement.
How Spiderwort Got Its Name
A young lad was working alone in his garden one day and stopped to pick a beautiful blue flower whose stamens had turned pink. A small radioactive spider hiding on the flower bit him and gave him the superhuman ability to grow in almost any soil. Thus was born "Spiderwort Man." The first couple of movies were big hits, but people soon tired of a superhero who just sat there and bloomed, and enthusiasm for another sequel waned.
OK, here's the real story. Spiderwort gets its name from the sticky sap that comes out when you cut a stem. The sap dries into white, thread-like stuff that resembles a spider's web.
I like my first explanantion better.