Tradescantia virginiana would have been a relatively new arrival in England in 1648, grown more as a curiosity than a medicinal plant, so it is not surprising that few of its uses were well known. For instance, John Parkinson wrote in Paradisi in Sole that “there hath not been any tryall made of the properties since wee had it, nor doe we know whether the Indians have any use thereof”.
However, this uncertainty did not stop his contemporary John Gerard from claiming it had great power to counteract poisons. Gerard wrote that almost any part of the plant mixed with wine and drunk “prevaileth against the bitings of scorpions, and against the stinging and biting of the spider called Phalangium, and all other venemous beasts”. In fact, Gerard was so certain of Tradescantia’s ability to cure poisons that he recommended a medicine of “roots tunned up in new ale, and drunke for a moneth together”, saying that this “expelleth poyson, yea although it have universally spred it selfe through the body”. It would appear that Parkinson had heard similar stories, but instead he chose to attribute these properties to related species.
The History: Transatlantic Tradescantia
The plant now known as Tradescantia virginiana first appears in the Botanic Garden’s records in 1648 as ‘Phalangium vir[ginianum]. flo[re]. caer[ulea]. Tradesc[anti].’ In the 1658 edition it is listed as ‘Phalangium Virginianum Tradescanti’, and a later dried specimen bearing that label was identified as Tradescantia virginiana, a name which had been proposed by Linnaeus. This binomial has not changed since then, and Tradescantia virginiana remains the species’ accepted scientific name.
The genus Tradescantia is named after two botanists named Tradescant – more on them shortly – and the species name virginiana was chosen because the plant’s North American habitat. When the stems of Tradescantia species are cut, the resulting secretions harden and take the appearance of spider’s silk, hence the common name ‘spiderwort’.
As mentioned above, it easy enough to establish that Tradescantia virginiana was originally found in Virginia; what is far more complicated is working out how it made its way to England. John Tradescant and his son – imaginatively also named John – were both well known and prolific collectors of plants from many different regions. Some sources claim that it was Tradescant the Younger who brought the species to Britain after a collecting trip in 1637, but these are cast into doubt by the writings of Parkinson in Paradisi in Sole. Parkinson writes that the species “was delivered to John Tradescant” and that he “received it of a friend”, so it does not appear to have been collected by a Tradescant at all. Neither is it likely to have been sent to John Tradescant Jr. – he was only eleven years old when Parkinson wrote his book. Although John Tradescant the Elder never visited America he did receive specimens from contacts in the country, so it seems certain that he was the man who introduced Tradescantia virginiana to England.