Common Name: Spiderwort, Cow Slobber, Indian Paint, Widow’s Tears, Moses in the Bulrushes, Dayflower, Trinity Flower.
Scientific Name: Tradescantia virginiana – Named for John Tradescant, the royal gardener of King Charles I of England. In 1637 his son brought the plant from North America back to England where it became a favorite as a garden exotic; the species name attests to its origin in the colony of Virginia.
Potpourri: The name Spiderwort is attributed to the observation that the monocotyledonous, grass- like leaves of the plant are suggestive of a crouching spider. To further augment the arachnid syllogism, when the stalk of the Spiderwort is broken, sap emerges that forms filaments that resemble a spider’s web. This is the source of the vernacular name “Cow Slobber.” The term “wort” is from the Old English wyrt meaning root or herb and is generally applied to a plant to indicate a medicinal application, in this case spider bites. It is likely that the perceived need for a treatment for spider bites arose due to the prevailing belief in Southern Europe that spider venom was the cause of a malignancy known as choreomania, or dancing madness. Symptoms included headaches, sweating, and trembling, and severe melancholia. In the absence of an antidote, frenzied dancing to the point of exhaustion was permitted even where it was prohibited by unflinching religious fiat. In Italy it was called tarantism, as it was attributed to the bite of the tarantula, a species of wolf spider. As early as 1633, plants of the genus Asphodelus were recommended as antidotes. The discovery of the spider-like plant in the New World during the heyday of this mania probably led to its consideration as a medicine for the condition.
That the name spiderwort is suggestive of the use of the plant as a palliative against spider bites is based on the Doctrine of Signatures. The hypothesis is that a plant can be used as a medicinal for human ailments based on some aspect of its form or color, so that a red plant would be appropriate for blood disorders and a flower shaped like a butterfly would be an antidote for an insect bite. It is thought to have originated in Ancient China where plant features were correlated to human organs, and independently in Greece, where it was alluded to by the physician Galen (131-200 CE). It reemerged in 17th Century Europe with the publication of the book “Signatura Rerum; the Signature of All Things” written by a poor German shoemaker named Jacob Boehme who claimed divine inspiration. The Doctrine of Signatures owes its prominence, however, to the noted Swiss physician and chemist Philippus Aureolus who is more commonly known by the eponym Paracelsus (Latin for “superior to Celsus”, who was a noted Roman physician) and is considered by some to be the father of modern chemistry. Paracelsus gained a reputation throughout Europe as a healer who used unconventional medicines containing natural ingredients, laying the groundwork for the field of chemical physiology.
The use of the various species of Spiderwort by Native Americans lends credence to the notion of its potentiality as a cure for tarantism. The Cherokee used the plant to make a tea used in the treatment of “female” problems and as a laxative to treat ailments of the stomach and kidney. The Lakota made a blue paint from the flowers that they used to decorate their clothing, whence the name Indian Paint. Perhaps most importantly, a poultice made by crushing the leaves of the plants was used as a treatment for insect bites and stings.
As a botanical link between the wetland grasses called sedges and the lilies, spiderworts have always been of interest to the scientific community. This is especially true because they have very large chromosomes that are ideally suited to the study of cells or cytology. Its long flowering period which allows more readily for artificial pollination has been exploited in genetic research using the prominent stamen hair cells. The most remarkable aspect of the Spiderwort plant is its use as an indicator of radiation and of chemical pollution, an application that has recently become manifest due to its widespread use in laboratory testing.
Since 1974, experimentation has demonstrated that the spiderwort plant is an accurate instrument for measuring cumulative doses of radiation. Studies conducted at Kyoto University in Japan and at Brookhaven National Laboratory found that the normally blue stamen hairs indicated mutation by turning pink when exposed to radiation. The same effect has since been observed when the spiderwort plant is subjected to chemical pollution. The use of a biological means to monitor radiation offers distinct advantages over electronic or chemical devices in that it gives a more meaningful measure of the effect on living things. The Roentgen Equivalent Man (REM) is used in radiation detection technology to take the biological aspect of radiation damage of a Roentgen of radiation into account. The Stamen-hair-mutation test (Trad-SHM) has been formalized as a means to detect gene mutation due to radiation and the Micronucleus test (Trad-MCN) has been established to detect DNA damage due to chemical pollutants