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Ohio Spiderwort
Ohio Spiderwort
All photos by Jim Mason

Common Name:
Spiderwort

Scientific Name:
Tradescantia sp.

A.K.A.:
Cow Slobber (yes, really!)

Spiderworts are very distinctive late spring/early summer prairie wildflowers.  Growing knee-high, their (usually) blue flowers stand out among the green of the new grass.

In eastern Kansas, the two species pictured on this page may often be found blooming together.  These two species are found in the eastern half of the United States and reach the western limits of their range on the Great Plains.  Where their ranges overlap, Bracted Spiderwort (T. bracteata) may be distinguished by the glandular, sticky hairs on its sepals (the green flower parts just below the petals).  The sepals of Ohio Spiderwort (T. ohiensis) are hairless and the stems have a waxy whitish substance on them that rubs off to the touch.

Bracted Spiderwort
Bracted Spiderwort

The other spiderworts on the Great Plains are T. occidentalis and T. tharpii.  The former has a wide range covering almost the entire Great Plains in areas with drier or sandy soils while the latter is restricted to the southern part of the Great Plains.  All spiderworts are similar in appearance and hybrids often occur, making exact identification difficult.

Spiderwort flowers have a very short life - only a single morning - but each plant will produce 20 or more flowers per stem.  The petals quickly decompose after blooming.

With their flower parts in threes (three petals and six stamens), Spiderworts show they are in the Monocot class.  Other typical monocots are lilies, irises, orchids and grasses.  Monocot is short for monocotyledon, meaning "single seed leaf".   That amazing little package of life we call a seed contains an embryonic root (the radicle) and an embryonic stem (the plumule) with either one or two seed leaves (cotyledons) attached to it.  (Think of the difference between a kernel of corn and a peanut.  Corn is a monocot and the peanut is a dicot [dicotyledon].  The two "halves" of a peanut are the cotyledons.)  The seed leaves are the first thing to pop out of the ground when a seed germinates.  They usually look quite different from the true leaves that the plant produces next.  The seed leaves not only begin photosynthesis so the plant can prosper, but they also carry a quantity of stored food for the baby plant, much like the yolk of a bird's egg.  The majority of families of higher plants are Dicots.  When one of their seeds germinates, it produces a pair of seed leaves and their flower parts are in multiples of four or five.

Break the tip off a spiderwort leaf and wait for a drop of sap to appear, then touch it with your fingertip and notice how far you can stretch a thread of sap.  This resemblance to a spider's silk may explain where its name came from.  The gooey quality of the sap definitely explains its familiar nickname of "cow slobber"!  While you are up close, look at the lo-ong purple hairs on the stamens!

The stems, leaves and flowers of spiderworts are edible.  The herbage may be eaten raw or added to stews.  The flowers (which may be either pink, blue or rose-purple) make an attractive edible garnish for salads.

Spiderworts are one of the native wildflowers that have made their way into the nursery trade.  They may also be easily propagated from stem cuttings or seeds.  They make an interesting addition to the home landscape.  The genus of spiderworts is named for John Tradescant, who was gardener for King Charles I of England.  He grew them from seed brought back from America and spiderworts are still popular in English gardens today.

Take a ramble some dewy May morning in your local patch of prairie and see if you can spot some spiderwort.  It's well worth getting your shoes wet for!

Native spiderworts and "Tropical Spiderwort" are not the same thing!

An introduced species Commelina benghalensis, sometimes referred to as "spiderwort", has become an invasive pest in many southern states in the U.S.   It is a very difficult plant to control or eliminate from sites once it gets established.  It is resistant to Round-Up (glyphosate) herbicide.

Click here for the pdf file  Click the icon for a USDA pdf file on this species for more info.  Note it has ordinary-looking leaves and native spiderwort has grass-like leaves.

Contact your local plant nursery or extension office for advice on control measures for tropical spiderwort.

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- This page was spun by Jim Mason -

Questions or comments?  Send Email to Jim Mason Spidey
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Great Plains Nature Center
6232 E. 29th Street North
Wichita, KS 67220-2200             Call:  316-683-5499            Fax:  316-688-9555