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SPIDER FLOWER, Cleome hassleriana

Anne K Moore
Photograph Anne K Moore

If you are in search of a vintage flower for your garden, find some seeds of the spider flower, Cleome hassleriana. Some old garden tags might also call it Cleome spinosa, its old name, based on the wicked thorns along its stems. You can grow this even if you have arachnidphobia. There is no fear of this plant attracting spiders. It is even a reach to think the flower is spider like. Daddy Longlegs-like, perhaps, but we all know Daddy longlegs, the round bodied eight legged ones, are not spiders. (This page, Opilionids has more information on these non-spiders. Please note: Do not go there if you have a fear of spiders. The pictures of these Opilionids are not pretty.)

Spider flower, an annual, was one of my favorites as a child. Cleome, as it is also known, is a good starter for the children’s garden, along with the more common zinnias and marigolds. I have never had a disease or pest invade this plant whereas zinnias and mildew meld together in summer’s heat and marigolds are mite traps. Spider flowers are usually pink and white but sometimes you can find all white.

It is a rambunctious seeder. It throws its seeds willy-nilly so if you live in a warm gardening area be prepared to either remove the seed pods before they ripen or pull extra seedlings next spring. In the photo, you might be able to see the skinny seed capsules sticking out below the flower petals. When these capsules turn brown, all it takes is a gentle rub, and you have a handful of seeds to share.

You can grow this flower in sun or part shade. It can reach great heights in a sunny spot. A couple in my garden last week were approaching 6 feet tall and starting to lean. I cut them back to their lowest branches, my lazy way of not having to go find stakes and install them. I did forget about the thorns, though, so be sure to take care when you grab a branch even when you are wearing gloves. They are sharp.

In warm areas of the country, the seeds are ripening now and can be scattered about the garden. Just scratch up the dirt a bit and broadcast the seed. Actually, the scratching isn’t even necessary, but we gardeners like to think we are helping nature along.

In hard freeze areas, gather the seed, make sure it is dry, and store it in paper envelopes until next spring. Barely cover the seed when you plant early next year, after the soil has warmed.

Last year a new hybrid cleome, Senorita Rosalita® hit the garden centers from the folks at Proven Winners. She has rosy flowers. Next year, Senorita Blanca™ will come on the scene with white flowers touched with lavender. (Can pure white be far behind?) Both of these cleomes fit into the smaller garden not so much because of their height but because their flower size is much smaller and covers the plant. They make a great container filler/thriller or middle of the border bedding plant. They also do not set seed, have no thorns, and are odorless.

I haven’t mentioned the perfume/odor of the foliage and flowers of my childhood flower. This isn’t a plant I want to bury my nose in, although I have read other accounts describing spider flower as “fragrant.” Distinctive is a better description to me. Once you have smelled it, you won’t forget it. Yet, it is not totally unpleasant. Distinctive - That’s spider flower/cleome.

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