If you are looking for a large scale plant that can tolerate a drought, resist deer and other pests, blooms until late summer and then reseeds itself, then Cleome may be the plant for you. Cleome is a large scale flower that can reach 6’ in a good season. Their blooms come in different shades of pink ranging from deep magenta to almost white. As the flower matures it will generally have three shades of pink on it at a single time. The flowers grow in clusters that grow up the stalk as the plant matures. As the flowers move up the stalk, they leave behind very long and slender seed pods that give the plant its common; spider plant. These slender seed pods also contain and deploy the seeds that allow Cleome to reseed its self year after year.
Cleome’s large stature and large colorful flower heads allows it to be used in mass as a lovely stand alone. However, because of it sheer size, it is one of the few annual flowers that pairs very well with established shrubs. Because of its generally pink color, it pairs well with loropetalum. I paired it with buddleia this year and it was very pretty. Cleome works fairly well as a cut flower. However, the plant emits a very strong musky scent that reminds me of citronella. Some find it unpleasant.
Besides its funny smell, another interesting thing about Cleome is the fact that a lot of people think its leaves look a whole lot like marijuana. I heard a story where a high schooler was participating in a “mock trial” competition. He was to “defend” one of his friends in a drug possession case. This enterprising young “lawyer” contacted local horticulturists to see if there were any plants that closely resembled cannabis. One of them sent him the leaves of Cleome. When he presented them as evidence in his mock trial, the judge dismissed all of the “mock charges” because he felt that there was enough resemblance between the two plants to place reasonable doubt in the minds of the juror.
If growing a plant that resembles marijuana does not turn you off, then you are in luck. Cleome is fairly easy to grow and it does well in average soils. Cleome can be started indoors about two weeks before the last frost. Cleome also does very well when it is direct seeded. If you want to direct seed, place your seeds about a foot apart and cover them with ¼” to a ½” of soil. Plant in direct sun after all threat of frost has passed. The seeds take 10 to 14 days to germinate. Provide regular water to get them established. Once established, provide Cleome with average water (1” per week) but it can withstand some drought conditions.
When you buy your Cleome seeds, check to see if you are buying an open pollinated variety or a hybrid. This is important to keep in mind because Cleome is a very good self seeder. If you buy a hybrid, than when the plant reseeds, you will have no idea what type of Cleome will pop back up. With that in mind, I think this hybridization of Cleome is a very good thing for gardeners. There is a very popular hybrid out now called “Sparkler”. Sparkler is lovely and it only gets about three feet tall. This “dwarf” version can now be worked into the front of the bed or border. I believe t his will make Cleome much more popular with gardeners in the future.
I love Cleome. I am fond of big plants and this one is a joy to watch grow. I love the way the flowers start when the plant is half grown and the fact that they continue to grow “up the stem” as the plant continues to develop. I love the “whiskers” that develop under the flowers. In fact, I even kind of like the way it smells. So, if you have a spot for a big, showy, pink plant that is easy to grow and has just about zero pest problems, I recommend that you include Cleome in your spring planting list.