Conversations sometimes trigger unexpected associations in the deep recesses of my mind.
And when a friend mentioned the narrator of Sir Walter Scott’s stirring tale Redgauntlet ... the blind fiddler Wandering Willie … my mind momentarily pictured the railway engine named after him. Older … no, old … train buffs will, of course, know that I was thinking of the North British Railway’s Class J 4-4-0 No. 499, built to the design of W. P. Reid in Glasgow in 1920. Renumbered 9499 and reclassified as a member of Class D30/2 when the North British Railway was subsumed into the London & North Eastern Railway ... the LNER … the engine was later renumbered 2440 and then became 62440 when British Railways was created in 1948. ‘Wandering Willie’ remained in service until it was scrapped in 1958.
And my butterfly mind then recalled having heard of a plant called wandering willie; and indeed that is one of the common names given to Tradescantia fluminensis, which is, perhaps, better known as spiderwort and used to be known as wandering jew before such racially-sensitive names were consigned to the limbo of forgotten things. The genus Tradescantia is named in honour of John Tradescant the Younger, so named to differentiate him from his father … John Tradescant the Elder … for both men occupy proud places in the world of the botanist. The younger man, who lived between 1608 and 1662, was educated at The King’s School, Canterbury, before travelling to the state of Virginia at the age of 20. He stayed there for 7 years before returning to Britain with a remarkable collection of seeds, including magnolias, bald cypress and tulip trees, and garden plants such as phlox and asters. He succeeded his father as head gardener to Charles I and worked with the famous landscape designer Inigo Jones to create the gardens at the Queen’s House, Greenwich. He left his personal library to Elias Ashmole, founder of the world-renowned Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where most of his books remain to this day.
Still, gentle reader, it will not be necessary to visit the Ashmolean to find Tradescantia fluminensis, for the cultivar ‘Quicksilver’ has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, an indication that the plant is excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions; is available; is of good constitution; is essentially stable in form and colour; and is reasonably resistant to pests and disease. It is a perennial plant that spreads along the ground with soft, hairless stems and green and white striped leaves. It needs moist soil and tolerates heavy shade: but it is not the happiest plant in cold climates, disliking frost and snow, as one might expect of a plant that is native to South America. For this reason, it is most commonly grown in Scotland as a houseplant for its foliage, although it does produce white flowers randomly at any time of the year. It is classified as an ‘easy-care’ houseplant … just follow the simple instructions that will accompany a bought plant.
In warmer climates, wandering willie justifies its name by creeping along the ground, setting down roots at frequent intervals and forming a dense mat of growing vegetation which suffocates other plants. Small parts of cut or broken stems … left behind when any attempt is made to eradicate the plant, and spread by water, by livestock, by discarded vegetation and even by boots and agricultural machinery … quickly form roots and establish new plants; and wandering willie is now regarded as an alien invader in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the south-eastern United States. It is illegal to grow Tradescantia fluminensis in any of these nations, which illustrates how a plant which is admired in one country can be seen as a menace in another. One man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison!