This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Leaves lanec-linear, elongated, tapering from the sheathing base to the point, ciliate, more or less open; umbels terminal, sessile, clustered, many-flowered, usually involucrate by two leaves; plant either smooth or hairy, with flowers of blue, purple, or white. (Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. See also Wood's Class-Book of Botany, and Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States.)
THE "Spiderwort" was one of the first of our native flowers to find a home in England, having been carried to that country from Virginia by the younger Tradescant, according to Parkinson, before 1629. Prof. Gray maintains that the genus is dedicated to the elder Tradescant, who was gardener to King Charles I, but other writers say it was intended to commemorate in the name the services of the younger as well. Before Tournefort and Linnaeus had made botany simple by reducing the Latin names given to each plant to two, the generic and the specific, or in other words, the noun and its adjective, Latin names of a much greater length had been applied to many plants, and our plant on its introduction to England was accordingly called Phalangium Ephcmcrum Virginianum fohannis Tradcscctnti. The contrast between the old and the new name will show how much we have gained by the innovation of Linnaeus, although there are still some persons who think botanical names hard to learn. It is from the name Phalangium, however, that our plant has been called "Spider-wort," and not "because the juice of the plant is viscid and spins into thread," as suggested by Prof. Wood. Pliny speaks of Phalangium as a venomous spider, the bite of which was said to be poisonous, and the same name, and also Phalangites, was given to an herb which would cure the spider's sting. Those who have made spiders a subject of special study, notably the Rev. Dr. McCook, believe that there is more dramatic poetry than honest prose in poisonous spider stories, and that the majority of spiders are entirely innocuous, while the few which may be venomous are but slightly so. They have, of course, no stings, but articulated jaws, by which, if at all, they misbehave themselves. However, we are but dealing with the past. The ancients believed there were those who were stung, and that their Phalangites was the remedy. We are told that "the roots being tun'd up with new ale and drunk for a month together, it expels poison, yea tho' it be universally spread through the whole body." This must, however, have reference to some other plant to which the same name was applied, apparently a sort of lily allied to Anthericum, with which, in the then condition of knowledge, the Tradescantia Virginica was wrongly associated.
But it fully accounts for the English name "Spiderwort," wort being the old Saxon name for "plant." Our true Tradcscantias are not known to possess any medicinal virtues.
The French common name of the plant is Ephemcrine do Virgiuie, taken, as we may readily see, from the early Latin name given it by the English authors. In many parts of our country it has received the name of "Starflower," and even (in Minnesota for instance)" Star of Bethlehem"; but as these names are not only inappropriate, but are also applied to so many other flowers, it is best that they should be dropped for "Spiderwort."
The French Ephemerine is a very good name, for the flowers remain open but a single day, although there are others ready to take their places in long succession. The poetic' sentiments associated with flowers are often far-fetched, but as emblematic of "transient happiness" the "Spiderwort" is appropriate. Says Byron, "There comes Forever something between us and what We deem our happiness," and this could well be echoed by this flower. It is hardly called to the enjoyment of the light of day before its doom is sealed, and it becomes "Like a frail shadow seen in maze,
Or some bright star shot o'er the ocean."
The flowering of the plant is of great interest to the close observer. The buds in the umbel are recurved; just before they flower they become erect, and after fading they bend down and perfect their seed, although sometimes, as Dr. Darlington remarks, failing in that particular. Under a lens the stamens exhibit remarkable beauty, being clothed in the lower part with long, jointed hairs, looking like threads of the richest twisted silk. The kidney-shaped anther, with its golden tint, hung to the filament by the slenderest of connectives, will also attract attention.
The flowers of our plants are found of many beautiful colors. The most common color is a reddish violet, but a pale rose, as well as a deeper rose, and vermilion, carmine, light purple, and white are by no means uncommon in gardens. Those we picture are from specimens gathered for us by Mr. Sternberg, near Fort Hays, in Kansas. The smooth forms of the stalk and leaf will occasionally come out from the same stock with the hairy forms; the smooth forms, however, usually prevail in the East. In gardens the flowers are often found double. There are few plants more deserving the florist's attention. It is a remarkably easy plant to cultivate. When once in good garden soil, it will take care of itself, and continue year after year, in spite of accidents, which, as every cultivator knows, seem successively to destroy more delicate species; yet it does not spread annoyingly, as some do, but waits for the gardener to divide the root stocks when he desires more plants. The tendency to vary, already noted, and to produce double flowers, shows how easily improvements might be directed by a skilful hand. Even as we find it, it is one of the best border plants we have. It is in flower most of the month of May.
The western boundary for the "Spiderwort" seems to be formed by the Rocky Mountains. The writer has found it on the foothills near Pike's Peak, and it is reported to have been met with in higher elevations. Its chief home appears to be from Florida northwestward, not favoring much the New England States. It varies very much in its choice of location. In the East, we usually find it in low meadows, - even some that are quite wet, - among the grass. On the prairies, it is found in much drier places as a rule; while, in Colorado, I have found it in dry sand, and one would almost class it-there with plants which love aridity. It is rare that we find such a happy disposition among vegetable beings.
1. The most common form found in Kansas.
2. Smooth form (leaf from a flower stem).
3. Varieties of color.
4. Lase of the plant, with fibrous roots.