Spiderwort FolkloreSpiderwort was discovered in Virginia and brought back to the United Kingdom in the middle 1600's - right around the time they were still buying and selling slaves and witch hunts were vogue. Aboriginal peoples the world over were considered uneducated heathens, and the world, although known to be round, was still thought to be inhabited by dragons and unicorns - good luck catching one.
While out hunting Gryphons or something in newly discovered Virginia, John Tradescant found Spiderwort, and took some home to Jolly Aulde Englande to share with his family and friends. The Scientific name for Spiderwort (Tradescantia Virginiana) was based on the discoverer's Last name, and the place he found it.
Medicine at the time of John's discovery was a mix of herbology, incantations, crude science and witchcraft. Yes - the same witches they were hunting back then were their doctors. Spider bites were considered to be a serious affliction. Serious enough that they just might kill you. (I guess if it was a black widow...)
Anyways, the story goes that the milky sap of the plant, if dabbed on a spider bite would cure the bitten, and they would be fine - this based mostly on the fact that the stems of the plant are jointed and look sort of like a spider's leg, (if you hold your head just right, and the sun is out of the west). Also the sap forms long filaments similar to a spiders web.
All of this sounds good to me. Waffle fries also sort of look like spider's webs. I wonder if they work the same way. (Honey, let's go to Denny's, I got a spider bite!)
Spiderwort HerbologyI think the "heathen" and "uneducated" First Nations folks had a better handle on the medicinal properties of the plant than their cultured friends from Europe. They also had a 1,000 year hear head-start on studying the plant. According to Cherokee lore, rubbing and mashing the plant on the skin would relieve pain and itching from insect bites, and a paste made from the sap would help treat cancer, a tea of spiderwort would act as a laxative and relieve stomach cramps. Mixing with other ingredients, the plant was a component in a relief for "female ailments" and kidney trouble. Sounds like a useful plant to know about. They also used young shoots as a salad fixin' so I get it makes a nice light snack.
This info was courtesy of the USDA, in this PDF: http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_trvi.pdf
Tradescantia and Weird ScienceMaybe the coolest trait of this plant is the weird science bit... apparently some of the 70 plus varieties of Spiderwort are hypersensitive to radiation. The normally blue-purple flowers on them have hairy stamens which are also - wait for it...- blue when the flower first blooms. However, if the plant is exposed to higher than normal (your guess is as good as mine as to what 'normal' is to a plant) the stamen cells mutate, and change colour to pink. For us this is super cool since we live between 2 nuclear power plants and always have that nagging question of what we are exposed to.
But its not all good...With all this groovy cool stuff, you'd think that everyone would be running out to plant this stuff, but alas, it is not so. Apparently the plant is given to naturalisation and aggression in the rich, weed free environment of a household garden. It wants to take over, and that is very not cool. In fact, you could say its downright rude. But some folks are keeping it as a well behaved guest. Maybe I'll let it be for a while in the messy wild zone, and then decide whether to move it or not over time.
To Sum it Up...So it turns out my mystery plant is a spider-bite healing, herbal remedy respected by first nations and European folks alike, and it does some cool scientific stuff at the same time, which I just have to try out. If it does run on me, I'll have more subjects to test (I really want to water some with tap water vs rain water and see what happens, oh and with native soil vs store bought soil. And so on.)
Not bad for a weird plant showing up in the garden!
If you are a fan of Tradescantia, or want to know more about the plant, a bulletin by the Chicago Botanic Garden goes into great detail on the nature of the plant, and offers a comparative trial of some 31 cultivars. It suggests partnering the plants with Geraniums and Hostas, in a very tight planting that allows one plant to bloom as the others fade. More on that soon...