What’s a weed? And is Spiderwort one?


How does a plant that arrives in your garden like a weed earn the right to not be weeded out?  I ruminated on this the other day when a neighbor asked me to identify a new plant in her garden that had arrived without her help. I told her it was Spiderwort (avoiding the rather unwieldy Latin Tradescantia), and her only question was:  “Is it a weed?”


The definition of weed I see all the time is ” A plant growing where you don’t want it,” but I disagree.  I think it’s a plant you don’t want anywhere in your garden or expect to see in anyone else’s garden, either.  Because there are plants that might be growing where we don’t want them (an overly large evergreen, a badly performing rose) but because we recognize them as plants people buy, we don’t call them weeds.   If we get rid of them it’s probably by passing them along to a good home nearby.

(Though judging by some of the items I’ve seen people bring to plant exchanges, not all of us agree on plants worthy of passing along.  Last non-garden-worthy sighting?  A 2-inch oak seedling.)


But returning to the good old Spiderwort, I gave it my very best defense as a garden-worthy plant and threw in a growing tip: to hack it back to 2-3 inches after it’s done blooming and the leaves start looking ratty.  New foliage soon appears and who knows – maybe a rebloom or two.


I’ve come to love this locally native volunteer to my gardens – both my former garden in the top photo and my current one in the next two photos, blooming with ‘Husker Red’ Penstemon and Sedum takesimense.  Spiderwort blooms last just one day each but they keep blooming and blooming and blooming.  Anybody know how long?

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Susan’s a garden writer, teacher and activist in the Washington, D.C. area. Co-founder of GardenRant, she also wrote for national gardening magazines and independent garden centers before retiring in 2014. Now she has time for these projects:

  • Founding and now managing the pro-science educational nonprofit GOOD GARDENING VIDEOS that finds and promotes the best videos on YouTube for teaching people to garden.
  • Creating and managing DC GARDENS, the nonprofit campaign to promote the public gardens of the Washington, D.C. area, and gardening by locals.
  • Creating and editing the community website GREENBELT ONLINE to serve her adopted hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland (a “New Deal Utopia” founded in 1937).

Contact Susan via email or by leaving a comment here.

Photo by Stephen Brown.


    • I just KNEW someone would come up with a defense of whatever plant I cited. Yet, I couldn’t think of a single garden use of a 2-inch seedling but damn – bonsai! But you agree it wouldn’t fare well in a border or really anywhere in the garden, right?

  1. My neighborhood seems to be completely torn on the plant-worthiness of spiderworts. I used it as an example in my comment in response to Ivette’s post a few days ago about her hellstrip garden interloper. These things are growing EVERYWHERE in my northeast Ohio neighborhood, and they really seem to take to the cracks in sidewalks in particular (not pretty). But, grouped together with the right companion plants, I think they look really nice. I do hack them back once they start becoming unwieldy, and I am careful to avoid letting the sap touch my skin as it does seem to cause a slight allergic reaction, but other than that I have no complaints about them. We also have tradescantia coelestis starting to pop up and I’ve been letting them take over my tiny front yard as a ground cover. They have the prettiest and bluest little wildflower I’ve ever seen.

    • love my tradescanta or spiderwort, i didn’t realize you could clip them down,you mean the small bulb like bud that looks dried out.?

    • Can I join this interesting conversation about Spiderwort. Here in my zone 6 Massachusetts garden, it is a well behaved plant. I have never seen it grow out of control and I know several other people who grow it. However, a neighbor saw it in my garden and told me it’s a thug. Whether he was talking from experience or rumor I don’t know. I follow the philosophy of a good friend and fellow gardener….if you like it, keep it.

      • I’m with you Sally, here in zone 6 PA it behaves quite well. But I’ve had some people up in arms about its “invasiveness”. I guess it just depends on its environment.

  2. I moved from the Deep South to California. One of the first botanical clues that I was not in Alabama anymore was finding a massive “trumpet vine” growing on a palm tree outside a natural foods store. One of my co-workers commented on how pretty it was, and I agreed. It’s a very pretty weed.

    See, where I grew up we call that stuff “cow itch” and it grows wild and rampant up every pine tree or abandoned house it can sink its little roots into. Landowners spend nearly as much time trying to eradicate this stuff as they do kudzu. It spreads mercilessly, too, by seed & by rhizome. And yet here in my new home, it’s considered ornamental?

    Well, the South is damp and lush and few things won’t grow there. California, on the other hand, is dry & crispy and very few non-natives can survive the summer without supplemental water. The chance of this plant becoming invasive in this area is practically nil. One climate’s weed has become another climate’s desirable ornamental.

    Spiderwort is beautiful and lush and cools a garden just by being. I’d love to have some out here, but I doubt it would do well at all.

    • I live in the foothills of Northern California; I have never heard of Spiderwort and now I understand why. Yes, one person’s weed is another’s garden plant. I fight with vinca major trying to keep it out of my veggie garden and off the struggling oak trees. Yet, I see it offered in the nursery as a ground cover. I hate the stuff almost as much as I hate yellow starthistle–a nasty weed that should never be allowed to grow!

      • You must live somewhat near me (I live in Placer County – Roseville, specifically). I’ve only heard of spiderwort because the first 23 years of my life were spent in the Deep South. That and monkey grass grew pretty freely all over my parent’s acreage.

        Our first house here, we planted Vinca major under the front window, thinking it would be nice easy-care groundcover. Oh my word! Within a year my husband was cursing it & how often he had to take the weed-whacker to it to keep it under control. Shortly before we moved, I was vacuuming the room where that big front window was … and I found the vinca was coming up under the baseboards!

        Certainly taught me to be wary of anything tagged as “vigorous’!

      • I would have to agree on the vinca major…I live in Illinois and someone planted it before I moved to this house….I have spent hours pulling the plant out of my flower be…..hate that stuff!!! I do have spiderwort tho…it grows in one place every year….I mow it down when it is done and begins to look ucky!!! It comes back every year….and gets wider every year…but still in same place….I like it!

  3. I see your point, and if Spiderwort can behave well enough for you, more power to you. In my garden, if I didn’t weed out the Spiderwort, the beds would be ALL Spiderwort. And it’s not even that nice purple or white, either–it’s a weak magenta. I prefer the lychnis volunteers for a shot of bright pink. Another count against Spiderwort, in my book, are its roots. I’ve had to dig up entire square-foot chunks of soil that were solidly packed with Spiderwort roots. No cheating and just pulling off the foliage with this one–you really have to weed out the entire plant if you don’t want it.

  4. Glad to see a post on spiderwort! It love the color of the flower…that luminous blue looks awesome near gold foliage plants….but it does start to look crap later in the season. I don’t know, I just have to admire a plant that doesn’t need to be coddled and that you can rely on to grow anywhere in your garden, blooming in sun or shade. I love that I can dig up a clump and move it around so easily. It doesn’t even need a decent hole, just drop the clump on the ground and it will root. In my yard I have been putting spiderwort volunteers in one out of the way area of dry shade. I am thankful to have something free to plant there.

    • Totally agree. I have the same admiration for liriopes and sedums – so tough, able to take all kinds of abuse by the gardener and the elements. I’m thankful for unfussy do-ers.

  5. I purposely put spiderwort in my garden this year, planted with turks cap. The blooms were tall and beautiful and about the time it started looking bad, the turks cap started growing again and hid the dying spiderwort. They work really great together. I don’t see it as a weed…at least not yet.

  6. I’m on my 3rd year with 6 rescued-from-the-trash spiderwort. Here in the Denver area, they are recommended for shade, but the three in full sun are doing just as beautifully as the three in shade. So far, there have been no volunteer spiderworts anywhere else in my garden, but maybe 3 years isn’t quite long enough. (It has been plenty long enough for the Japanese Anemone to start colonizing in every damn corner of the yard, though!)

  7. Sorry, I’m in the “weed” camp on spiderwort. I planted one plant years ago, and I’m STILL trying to get the hell rid of it! Noxious, I say.

  8. I love my spiderwort, but I have the golden variety which performs really well in my garden. The bright, chartreuse leaves contrasts nicely with the bright, purple flowers which is nice to have during the June gloom here, in the Puget Sound area.

  9. Here in the Southeast US, Spiderwort is a native (?) or naturalized and found just about anywhere; i.e., in different econiches. Some years ago, I transplanted Spiderwort in a bare spot in my backyard, and it took over. The Spiderwort acts like a perennial here and grows back every year. I have discovered it “jumps” because it took over an old pot of daylillies in its second season, and crowded out the daylilly plant. I also discovered that the original planting spread and grows a larger clump every year. It is necessary for me to cut it back to contain it. Nevertheless, I think it is a beautiful plant, and I welcome any plant that volunteers in my yard and garden. Like my mullein for example. I actually wanted mullein in my yard, but did not go about to find any to transplant; because it is one plant that does not like to transplant well. Last year, to my surprise, I found a whole group of mullein growing in my front yard bed. I let them be. They volunteered on their own, and I find plants know where they want to be and to grow. We are the honored ones when a plant decides to grow in our yards and gardens.

  10. Here in NH people either love it or hate it, I like they way it looks but for a garden it does not have good manners & spreads everywhere! And when you try to move it or destroy it the violet flowers/buds stains your hands, pants, shirts etc-very messy! 🙁

  11. The spiderwort behaved very well for a long time. 10 years? Then it started appearing everywhere. I just try to keep it under control. The new invasive native plant for me is virginia creeper. Little sprouts under the Douglas fir and tulip poplar, both of which house loads of squirrels and birds. I figure they eat the berries and poop the seeds.

  12. I’ll add that if a plant is not performing well – your example of a rose with blackspot – and you don’t want it in your garden anymore – toss it. Just because you paid $$$ for it once upon a time, doesn’t mean it deserves more attention, water, time, fertilizer, mulch etc lavished on it. Transplant it if possible always the first line of action, give it away a good second, but if one and two can’t be done, don’t feel you have to live with it.

  13. On a tanget – I enjoy the Buddhist prayer flags adding their own color & flavor of hope above your garden greenery.

  14. I picked up a little spiderwort start at a yard sale down the street 2years ago – not a fan. I didn’t know it will do well in the shade and have a no-mans-land-bed (aka the dead zone) that it is getting moved to asap! Live or die spiderwort, it’s your call now LOL!

    Now… about oregano… uugh… i can’t get rid of it no matter how hard I try – hate, hate, hate the stuff!

  15. My spiderworts bloom all summer long into September, beginning in May in
    Buffalo. Some people do not like them, but I love the rich purple and have a white one too. The leaves and stems are different from many other plants, and add contrast to all the rounded leafed flowers I have.

  16. I love spiderwort too. It is a favorite of every species of bee that lives in my neighborhood too. Every morning when the blooms are open my 3 larger than life spiderworts are covered with the pollinators. I love sitting outside watching them work while having my coffee in the mornings. For that reason alone, they are welcome to grow, seed and spread throughout my garden. 🙂

  17. A little of this goes a LONG way…… I like that it blossoms long and is a re-bloomer but I have to rip it out of most beds as if it were a weed to keep it under some control.


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