Friday, May 7, 2010
Spiderwort: Spring Beauty and Delightful Edible
A lot of Florida is decked out with the purples and yellows of spring. The landscape looks like an impressionistic painting with Lyre leaf sage (Salvia lyrata), cat’s ear (Hypochoeris radicata), false dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus), wild lettuce (Lactuca graminifolia), phlox (Phlox spp.), and spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) dotting our backyards and fields and popping up along roadsides.
One of my favorite spring plants, T. ohiensis in the Commelinaceae family, is not only beautiful but also edible! Known also by the names bluejacket and dayflower, T. ohiensis particularly likes moist meadows and the edges woodlands. You’ll find it in dry areas, too, but greatly diminished in stature.
This monocot grows in clusters and can reach a height of 30 inches. The lanceolate leaves are smooth with a deep ridge down the center. The rounded stem supports drooping clusters of flowers that have three blue petals and yellow stamens.
The flowers are yummy to eat as you walk along on hikes, and you can also prepare the leaves and stalks as part of a meal.
The flowers, young leaves, stems, and “peas” are edible. Use flowers shortly after picking as they decline quickly. And pick early in the day as you may not find any open flowers just before dinner. You can cut the stalks and put them in water and the flowers will stay open until late afternoon (and new buds will open the next day). Or pick the blossoms and put them in a glass dish in the refrigerator where they will stay fresh for a short period of time.
At the Table
The young leaves and stems, which taste like green beans, can be used in salads, added to soups, or boiled and served as a vegetable. Cherokee people parboiled or fried T. virginiana (a close relative of T. Ohiensis) and mixed it with other greens.
The pretty purple flowers make quite a conversation piece when sprinkled atop a green salad or a fruit salad for a dinner party. The flowers can also be candied for spectacular desserts toppings.
There is a tiny edible green “pea” (the ovary) inside the flowers that you can extract when the flower is open or after the petals have disintegrated. This is a lot effort for a little bit of nutrition, but a handy snack for hiking and fun and safe foraging activity to share with children who can easily identify this plant when it is in bloom.
For Your Health
A poultice of smashed leaves is said to be good for insect bites, and the roots reportedly were used as a laxative or for stomachaches from overeating.
Young plants without flowers to identify them can look deceptively similar. Always use care to properly identify plants before harvesting, especially spring shoots. Consult an experienced forager if you are in doubt.
Some dogs have severe contact allergies to other plants in the Commelinacea family, including Tradescantia spp., Murdannia spp., and Commelina spp. and garden species commonly called “wandering Jew,” which is not edible. The canine reaction is akin to poison ivy rash in humans and is caused by calcium oxalate crystals common in the plant family. Some people also react to calcium oxalates in plants.
Some plants in the Commelinaceae family are exotic invasive species—particularly the ones people seem to like to plant in their gardens such as T. pallida (Purplequeen), T. zebrine (Wandering Jew, also called Inchplant), and T. fluminensis (Small Leaf Spiderwort).
To Learn More
Deuerling, R. J. and Lantz, P. S. 1993. Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles. Orlando FL:Florida Native Plant Society.
Foster, S. and Duke, J. 1990. Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.
Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland OR: Timber Press Inc.
Plants for a Future. 2008. http://www.pfaf.org/database
Eleanor K. Sommer