Cleomes – nothing itsy bitsy about this spider flower

When it comes to plant knowledge and particularly plant identification, my friends D and W are the best. They know their stuff. So imagine my surprise when one day at the WV State Fair Exhibition Garden, a man asked how they grew such lovely Cat Whiskers, and they didn’t have an answer.

With a few more questions and the kind man pointing out the “Cat Whiskers,” we all learned a new name for Cleomes.

Cleomes are annual flowers that often grow in cottage gardens. The stems can reach 4 -5 feet in height, so this plant works best when planted in the middle or back of your sunny garden beds.

The pink, white, or lilac flowers are rather unusual and give the plant its common name of Spider Flower. The blooms have smallish petals with long stamens shooting out on all sides, giving the appearance of spider legs.

Despite their nicknames, the blooms are delicate, large, and flashy. The plant will begin to bloom in late June and continue through the first frost.

Once established in the garden, Cleomes are drought resistant, deer resistant, and have a knack for repelling insects and diseases. Talk about an easy annual – these flowers will also self-seed and come back next year.

I like self-seeders. Plants that come back in the spring are one less thing on my to-do list. If that is not part of the plan for your garden, or you want Cleomes in a new area, remove the seed pods before they burst open in the fall.

The seedpods appear as the blooms begin to fade. Once they dry, they easily pop open, so be careful if you are collecting them to prevent new growth in the following spring.

Of course, you could start the seeds indoors during the winter and set the new seedlings out after the chance of frost has passed. You can also simply sprinkle the seeds on the ground in the fall, gently cover, and let them be through the winter, then germinate on their own in the spring.

The plant will bloom in part shade but thrive in full sun. The stems will be stronger and hold the blooms without staking if planted in at least 6 hours of sunshine each day.

The stems can be prickly. When working with this plant, watch the underside of the leaves or where the leaves attach to the stem. Wearing gloves might be a good idea.

Deadheading the blooms will guarantee continuous flowers throughout the season. It will also control the plant from dropping new seeds into the ground. Despite not being a fragrant flower, it will attract hummingbirds and butterflies to the garden.

There are over 150 varieties of cleomes. Some, such as Linde Armstrong, have been cultivated to be thornless stems and more container friendly, only reaching a height of 18 inches. 

Sparkler Bush is another variety that works in containers.

Good companion plants for cleomes are zinnias, cosmos, celosias, and salvias. These plants are happy with the same growing conditions of full sun and a regular watering schedule.

Whether you call them Cat Whiskers, Grandpa Whiskers, Spider Flowers, or Cleomes, these blooms will add height and interest to your sunny landscape. Enjoy the colors and silly names. Who knows, you might come up with a new nickname to share with others.