A week or so ago a gardener asked me to identify a plant growing in a churchyard. This can be a challenge, there being about 300,000 plant species identified on Earth.
But knowing what parts of a plant to examine gave me a “running start” at determining its name or at least its family. The plant, as described by the gardener, stood about 2 feet tall on a strong stem and had palmate leaves, one per leaf stem. The floral head was described as a loose cluster of pink and white flowers with thin, thread-like shoots projecting from the blooms.
In this case, the plant was one I knew at first sight, having grown it myself. Commonly known as spider flower, Cleome [klee-OH-mee] hassleriana grows as an annual in the Midwest. To some, those long stamens look like daddy long-leg spiders.
An introduced plant from South America, it can reach 5 feet tall. It grows well here in Boone County and has escaped cultivation to become a weed. Fortunately, cleome is not invasive, although it is rather good at reseeding itself. The flower’s long stamens carry the seeds.
In gardens, some favorite cultivars include the “Queen” series in shades of violet, rose and white. Cultivars in the “Sparkler” series are hybrids, heavier blooming and usually more vigorous, if stockier, than the “Queen” series. Plants can reach up to 4 feet tall with 4 to 6-inch wide blossoms. Hybrids, however, may not come true to the parent.
Cleome nectar attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. The plants make a great looking border in August, when many flowers begin to decline. The hybrid series also can be grown in containers.
Some growers find cleome to be fragrant with a citrus-like aroma. Other growers find that cleome smells like skunk. It all depends on a gardener’s olfactory nerves. Unfortunately, my nose smelled skunk, so my cleome became compost after its first year.
Other drawbacks when growing cleome include the spines or sharp edges found at the base of each leaf stalk. I wore leather garden gloves to avoid injury when handling the plant.
Cleome prefers full sun but tolerates light shade. It performs best with regular watering in well-drained soils. Plants will withstand some drought once established. Also, rabbits and deer seldom bother the plant.
For garden questions, contact Iowa State University Extension’s Hortline at (515) 294-3108.