Widow’s tears have been used to relieve itching associated with insect bites.
Widow’s Tears (Tradescantia virginiana), more commonly known as the Virginia spider, spider lily, or trinity flower, is a perennial herbaceous plant native to the central, eastern, and southern United States. Usually found growing in moist grasslands, meadows and woodlands, the plant is a vigorous grower in nature and in cultivation. Widow’s tears also produce slightly fragrant flowers that are bright blue, purple, violet or white. The flowers don’t last more than two days before wilting, but new flowers appear daily during the growing season.
The plant grows into an upright clump that reaches up to 36 inches (91.44 centimeters) in height and produces rounded stems that are single or branched at the base. Widow’s tears have a widespread, though non-invasive, growth habit. This makes it ideal for planting in areas that need informal cover, such as between shrubs and large ornamental plants, or under trees. The plant spreads through underground stems to form large colonies. The smooth, strip-shaped leaves are similar to the iris and spark interest in the garden when the flowers are no longer in bloom.
Native American tribes, including the Cherokees, used widow’s tears for various medicinal purposes and as food. They ate the young leaves of the plant as salad greens or boiled them with the tender leaves of other native plants. The whole plant was crushed and spread over insect bites and other superficial wounds to relieve itching, and a paste made from the plant’s crushed roots was used as a treatment for cancer. Tea made from the leaves and stems of the plant has been used to treat constipation, stomach ailments, reproductive and kidney problems. Today, the plant is most commonly used for ornamental purposes.
Widow’s Tears prefer a growing environment that receives partial shade to full sun, and consists of poor to medium acidic soil. It adapts to drier areas if needed, but thrives in moderately moist, well-drained soil. Because of its native temperate habitat, the plant can tolerate temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-34.44 degrees Celsius). Although relatively free from pests and diseases, young snails will sometimes eat the plant’s buds.
Blooming strongly, the widow’s tears produce flowers during the spring and summer months. It sometimes blooms again in autumn if the stems are removed in late summer after the first flowering period has declined. Established wild and garden plants will seed themselves under ideal conditions, and any stalks left in the ground will take root readily. Dividing the plants every two to four years and removing the stems from the ground before they have a chance to take root will help keep the plant from growing vigorously.