Perennial Notes Excerpts
THE PERENNIAL SEARCH
These Perennial Search stories come from our archives. Editor Paula Refi discussed this plant in the Summer of 2002 issue of Perennial Notes.
Tradescantia 'Blue and Gold'
Everyone acknowledges that gardening has gone global in the last decade, thanks to modern plant explorers who journey to every continent in search of new garden plants. But we sometimes overlook the intrepid botanists who, centuries ago, risked life and limb to acquire new species.
In May, I stumbled upon the ancient tombs of the two John Tradescantrs in a tiny and seldom-visited London churchyard. I was looking for Gertrude Jekyll artifacts at the former St. Mary's Church in Lambeth, no reborn as the Museum of Garden History. The Tradescants (father and son) are entombed at St. Mary's in the adjacent walled garden of 17th century plants that commemorates their contributions to British horticulture.
Both John Tradescants introduced plants from the New World into England, and the garden at St. Mary's Church contains many familiar American natives. John the Elder (1577-1637) brought, among other species, the spiderwort that Carl Linnaeus later named in his honor: Tradescantia virginiana. The plant's common name is dervied from the web-like filaments that form from the mucilaginous sap of the broken stems. Each flower lasts only one day. Ironically, a new golden-leafed form of that species has become a desirable new perennial on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate' was introduced by Hillier Nurseries at the 2000 Chelsea Flower Show, where its clear blue blossoms and golden foliage created a sensation. Nowhere in the gardening literature, as far as I can tell, is the real "Kate" acknowledged, but, by the next growing season, the new cultivar named for her appeared in the catalogs of cutting-edge nurseries in the U.S. The double advantages of outstanding flower and foliage ensured her reputation. Inexplicably, Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate' came to be listed as T. 'Blue and Gold' in the U.S., and both cultivar designations are used here and in England. Despite the confusing nomenclature, this herbaceous perennial performs admirably wherever she is planted.
In the wild, our native American spiderwort stands 18 to 24 inches tall and blooms heavily in the spring, then intermittently throughout the summer. The flower parts occur in threes, and the bright yellow stamens stand out against the vivid blue petals. The narrow grass-like leaves are clear green and clasp the stem at the base. The species thrives in average soil and morning sun and tolerates boggy sites, as well. If ignored, spiderwort can sprawl and seed about. Many selections with related flower colors have been introduced, including pale blue ('J.C. Weeguelin'), purple ('Concord Grape'), rosey red ('Red Cloud'), and white ('Osprey'). Spiderwort cultivars can be a trifle promiscuous, although offspring are easy to remove. Thus far, I've had no self-seeded volunteers from Tradescantia 'Blue and Gold', and I suspect this cultivar might be sterile.
After two growing seasons, Tradescantia 'Blue and Gold', has flourished in my garden, where it receives only morning sun. It blooms prolifically, despite my failure to fertilize. The clumps have multiplied generously, and I've made a mental note to lift and divide them on alternate years. In my experience with spiderworts, deadheading of individual blossoms or complete removal of spent stalks definitely prolongs flowering. This small maintenance task encourages blossom production until September. At the University of Georgia Trial Gardens, where it grows in full sun, T. 'Blue and Gold' appears a little stressed. This is a perennial best suited, I think, to morning sun or part shade.
Placement of this eye-catching perennial depends on the designer's intent. In dignified gardens, it can be subdued by combining it with a demure white daisy, such as Japanese aster (Kalimeris pinnatifida), shasta daisy 'Becky', or white coneflower (Echinacea purpurea 'White Swan'). For a more strident effect, add a few Crayola crayon colors to the primary blue and yellow of 'Sweet Kate'. I envision it with purple (Verbena bonariensis), and red (Salvia coccinea), and orange (Canna 'Bengal Tiger').
John Tradescant the Elder earned his place in garden history the hard way, and we thank him for recognizing the beauty of our American spiderwort. Four centuries later, the modern perennial plant industry has figured out that Tradescantia 'Blue and Gold' is a tissue culture no-brainer, so I expect to see it virtually everywhere next spring. We home gardeners need only divide our existing clumps to ensure that offspring continue to thrive in Georgia gardens.