Bracted Spiderwort is an erect, native, perennial forb growing 8 to 24 inches high on slender round smooth stems, rarely branching, except that in Minnesota branched specimens are found. Stems contain a sticky juice.
The leaves are flat, smooth and with a sheath surrounding the stem. Leaves alternate in a spiral fashion on the stem. Larger leaves are usually less that 1 inch wide but linear, flat, and 8 to 10x as long as wide. Edges and surfaces are smooth and the long leaf bends downward beyond the middle. Sometimes there can be fine cottony hair on the leaf edges just above the sheath. Leaf nodes are swollen at the sheath and the underside of the leaf more prominently shows the veining.
The inflorescence is a terminal cluster of short-stalked flowers (a cyme), sometimes more than 20 flowers, with 2 long leaf-like bracts, spreading horizontally, immediately below the cluster, of which all parts are hairy.
The flowers are 3-parted, each about 1 inch wide with ovate petals that have rounded but wavy margined tips and that vary from rose to blue, but rosy purple is the usual in this species. The 3 sepals are much smaller than the petals, more linear, placed between the petals and are green initially but dotted with rosy tones when the flower opens. The sepals and the flower stalks are covered with fine hair, of which some may be glandular. The six stamens have rosy filaments, yellow anthers and multicellular hairs at their base. (Filaments and hair match the color of the petals.) There is a single style with a knob-like stigma. The pistil is made from 3 united carpels. Usually only two flowers of the cluster open at one time and these close by noon on sunny days.
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a round papery 3-part (3-valved) seed capsule, each valve containing 2 seeds. The seeds are elliptic in shape, flattened on one side, 2 to 3 mm long, with a rough indented surface. Seeds require 120 days of cold stratification and cool soil for germination. Best to plant in the fall and let nature do the work.
Habitat: Bracted Spiderwort grows best in full sun, in sandy to loamy soils, moderate moisture to dry conditions - typical of prairies. It grows from a fleshy rhizomatous root system which can produce offsets.
Names: The genus name, Tradescantia, is an honorary for John Tradescant (1608-1662), English gardener to the King; the species bracteata, is Latin for "bracted" referring to the plants leafy-bracts. The author name for the plant classification, from 1898, ‘Small’ is for John Kunkel Small (1869-1938), American Botanist, first curator of the New York Botanical Garden, best known for Flora of the Southeastern United States.
Comparisons: A close match to T. bracteata is the Bluejacket, T. ohiensis. That plant is taller by half, branches, usually has blue flowers and the calyx and flower stalks are not hairy. It prefers more moist soils. HOWEVER, if grown close by, the two species will hybridize. The other species found in Minnesota, Western Spiderwort, T. occidentalis, with petals bright blue to rose or magenta, has branched stems but also with hairless stem nodes and leaves. Sepal hairs are mostly glandular but not dense hair like T. bracteata.
Above: The petals are usually this rosy color, with the sepals and flower stalk picking up the rosy tones. All parts of the flower are hairy except the petals.
Below: The inflorescence occurs at the top of the stem as a tightly bunched cluster, all parts hairy. Both photos show the pair of opposite linear green bracts right at the base of the cluster - quite long, but typical of the Tradescantia.
Below: The stem leaves form a sheath at the stem. Veins are parallel with the leaf margin with the central rib forming a V shape; edges may have fine hair and the underside (2nd photo) more prominently shows the veining.
Below: The root is fleshy rhizomatous, which can produce multiple flower stalks.
Notes: Bracted Spiderwort is native to the south and western parts of Minnesota usually west of a line running from the north metro countries of Washington and Anoka northeastward to Polk county. It is considered a plant of the prairie and its U.S. range is generally from Michigan and Illinois west to Wyoming and Montana and as far south as Oklahoma. Eloise Butler recorded planting it on May 22, 1910 with plants obtained from Bordon (the arboretum), and again on May 28, 1910 with plants obtained in Glenwood Park (which partially surrounded the Garden and is now named Theodore Wirth Park), thus it is native to the Garden area unless she got them from the Park Board Nursery which was located in the park. More were planted on June 1, 1914 from Columbia Heights; more in 1916, '17, and '18 from Glenwood Park and from Brownie's Lake in 1920; more plants in 1921, '22, '23, '24, '25, '27, '31 and '32 including a white variety in 1921. It was not listed on Martha Crone's 1951 census of plants in the garden, although she reported planting it on June 17, 1938. It can be edged out by other more aggressive plants. T. bracteata is one of three species of Tradescantia found in Minnesota, the other two are Western Spiderwort, T. occidentalis, and T. ohiensis, the Ohio Spiderwort (or Bluejacket) (which is also in the Garden).
Eloise Butler wrote of the Spiderwort: "This plant is closely allied to the lilies. The flower is on the plan of three - having three green sepals, three bright reddish or bluish purple petals, six stamens and a pistil usually made up of three united carpels. The stamens are a distinctive feature of the flower, with their yellow pollen sacs against the purple petals. The stalks of the stamens are densely fringed with purple hairs, whose beauty has a depth “that is deeper still” under the armed eye of the microscope. The hairs, when magnified, are seen as branching chains of exquisitely tinted spherical and cylindric, bead-like cells, within which pulsate circling streams of protoplasm - the living substance - endowed with the same properties in the humblest and in the highest forms of life." Published June 11, 1911 Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. (Read)
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"