Spider flower, Cleome hassleriana

Cleome, or spider flower, in bloom.

Cleome is a genus of about 170 species in the caper family (Capparaceae). Spider flower, Cleome hassleriana (sometimes referred to incorrectly as C. hasslerana or by the synonym C. spinosa) is a common annual flower from South America (Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and southern Brazil) that also goes by other common names including spider legs and grandfather’s whiskers. The common name of spider flower comes from the appearance of the long, thread-like stamens of the individual flowers and the elongate seedpods that develop below the blooming flowers. It has been a garden favorite since the 1800’s.

This tender annual grows quickly from seed to form tall, strong stems up to 6 feet tall from a stout taproot. Plants branch readily, and given enough space, can grow as wide as they are tall. The alternate leaves are palmately compound with 5-7 leaflets tapered at the base (although the leaves on the upper parts of the stems are smaller and simple). There are prickles on the midrib on the underside of the leaf and a pair of small spiny stipules at the base of each leaf petiole (some varieties are thornier than others), as well as glandular pubescence, so the aromatic foliage is slightly sticky with exudate and a foetid smell from the glandular hairs. Many people suggest the plants have a slight skunk-like scent. The lower leaves often fall toward the end of the season.

Cleome plants can grow as wide as tall (L), with palmately compound leaves (LC) and hairy stems with a pair of spiny stipules at the base of each leaf petiole (RC and R, from different angles).

Cleome inflorescence.

Plants bloom from early summer until frost in a dense, 6-8 inch wide, ever-lengthening terminal inflorescence (a raceme). Each 1–1½” wide individual flower on a 2-inch pedicel has 4 reflexed light green sepals, 4 clawed petals and 6 erect to spreading stamens that grow to 3-inches long with yellow-orange anthers. The petals may be white, pink, rose or purple. The flowers may be visited by hummingbirds, hummingbird moths, many types of bees and butterflies. Bats are thought to be the main pollinator in its native tropical habitat. Many types have no noticeable fragrance, while others are very fragrant, often described as a musky, sweet and pungent, or spicy scent. Cleome can be an excellent, striking cut flower if the scent is not considered disagreeable.

Buds open at the top of the plant (L), with the long stamens furled under the petals (C) before the flowers open (R).

Each flower is replaced by a seedpod (an elongate, cylindrical 2-valved fruit filled with numerous seeds) that develops on a long narrow stipe as bloom progresses upward on the flower stalk. Wait until seed pods start to yellow if collecting seed; dry seed pods shatter read. Once the pods dry, they pop open to release the small round brown seeds. Cleome often self-seeds readily, although cultivars may not produce progeny the same as the parent plant (and after several generations all end up a pale pink color). Removing the seedpods as they develop can help limit self-seeding or spreading thick mulch over the area the following spring will reduce volunteers. Although this plant self-seeds prolifically and has naturalized in some areas, it is generally not considered invasive as it rarely persists in undisturbed areas.

Elongate seedpods (C) develop below the blooming flowers (L and LC), and when mature split open (RC) to release the small seeds (R).

Cleome adds height in a mixed bed.

Cleome is a nice addition to annual beds, can be combined with perennials in mixed beds, or used in a mass planting for a dramatic effect. When planted in mass, they can look like a blooming shrub, and works well to fill empty spaces in a young planting until the shrubs mature. Depending on the variety, they may be best at the back of a border or in the center of island beds (for the tall types) or interspersed throughout (for shorter cultivars) a planting. This plant works well in cottage gardens, combined with other upright flowers such as Liatris, cosmos and snapdragons, and tall types could be used as a temporary summer hedge or as a screen along a fence. Go for a monochromatic effect by planting purple cleome with violet salvia and two-toned or lavender petunias in front. Or use it as an airy foil to contrast with the bold flowers of cosmos or purple coneflowers in similar colors. With its exotic appearance, cleome also combines well with hibiscus, bananas, and other bold foliage and flowers for a tropical feel. Shorter cultivars can be used in large containers.

Cleome adds vertical interest in an island annual bed.

Spider flower grows best in full sun in moist, well-drained soil. Although it tolerates dry conditions, watering will promote better growth and flowering, but overwatering and overfertilizing causes leggy growth. Staking is usually not necessary, except in windy locations. Pinching them back when young will promote a shorter, bushier plant, otherwise they tend to be upright and columnar. Because the plants are somewhat spiny and sticky, you may want to wear gloves when handling the plants. Cleome has few insects or disease problems and is generally not favored by deer or rabbits. Occasionally flea beetles or imported cabbageworm (Pieris rapae) caterpillars will feed on the foliage.

Start this annual indoors 6-8 weeks before the average date of last frost or seed directly in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Seed must be cold stratified (just like they would be if they overwintered outside) first, press the seed into the soil without covering it (this plant requires light to germinate), then should germinate in a little over a week. Wait until the soil has warmed to plant in the garden, spacing the plants (or thin if self-seeded) at least a foot apart (up to 3 feet if you want a bushier plant). Self-seeded plants need to be thinned, or all will be weak and spindly.

Self-seeded cleome can be quite prolific (L) and must be thinned. The seedlings are distinctive (R), so are easy to identify and remove where unwanted.

Cleome Señorita Rosalita®.

There are a number of cultivars of cleome, including

  • ‘Helen Campbell’ – is a white-flowered cultivar which received the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
  • ‘Linde Armstrong’ – is a very compact, thornless cultivar with pink flowers. This is an Athens Select plant (University of Georgia) with good heat tolerance that only grow 12-18” tall.
  • ‘Queen’ – is a series which comes in white, rose, cherry and purple shades on 3-5 foot tall plants.
  • Señorita Rosalita® – is thornless, odorless and sterile, with smaller purple-lavender flowers all along the stem (not just at the top) that don’t produce seeds, and the foliage on the 12-18” tall plants is not sticky. Señorita Mi Amor® is the pink version.
  • Cleome ‘Sparkler Blush’.

    ‘Sparkler’ – is a F1 hybrid series with 3-4 foot tall, very full and bushy plants. ‘Sparkler Blush’, with pink and white flowers, was a 2002 All-America Selections award winner. Other colors in the series are lavender, rose and white.

  • Spirit™ Series – a more compact (24-48” tall) and better branching series from Proven Winners includes Appleblossom (pale pink fading to white), Frost (white) and Violeta (pink-purple).

– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison

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  1. One of my favorite garden annuals. I’ve never seen it called “Grandfathers Whiskers”, might need to start using that name 🙂

  2. I can recall when I was a little girl, my Mother grew cleome plants in our front yard.
    They were so beautiful and their fragrance was nice. I love all flowers, but I guess cleones are my favorite.

  3. I can attest to the fact that they self seed well. But I was surprised to read about their skunk like smell, which I haven’t really noticed. Huh, will investigate this in my garden tomorrow! Thanks for the information.

  4. Although these are an annual flower in my zone I’m interested in the fact that they flower all through the growing season and attract hummingbirds. They are also would be a striking addition to my flower bed. But I’m not sure I want to deal with their thorniness. I will ask at my garden center next spring about them.

  5. They are a beautiful plant. I’ve used them in the past, and this article puts them on my radar again!

  6. They do make a statement in back of boarder. Love seeing the hummingbird moth, I’ll have to watch out for bats,interesting.Beware when pulling them out in fall, they have thorns. Make sure to wear gloves…thick gloves.

  7. Cleome is a great plant for the small raised bed that we have in front of our windows. Planted with cannas, we can watch the hummingbirds from our living room.

  8. I haven’t had any luck starting these from seed, but I haven’t done any cold stratification. I’ve purchased plants and had some moderate self-seeding. I plant these with cosmos, purple zinnias, and little blue stem and I love the airy effect.

  9. Enjoyed reading this since I planted Cleome Senorita Rosalita, in my garden this year. Also, was a good review on plant anatomy, as I looked up several of the plant terms!

  10. I have never grown Cleome. After reading this article I am adding this to my list of annuals to try in my flower beds. I am always looking for flowers that aren’t favored by deer and rabbits.

  11. Well, I have seen this plant around, but never grown it myself. It is lovely and seems like it is pretty easy to grow. I like the flowers, but also the seeds pods. They also add a lot of late summer early fall interest to the plant.

  12. Good info onplanting, that light is needed and prior cold stratification. I have had these self seed and now know how to get them where I want them for best effect.

  13. Have always admired these because they make such a beautiful statement. Tried a couple many years ago and they were leggy and not what I hoped for. Not sure if the problem was too dry or maybe too wet as they were at the bottom of a hill and the water tends to run down hill. Such a ling time ago I don’t remember. Am at new place now so may give them a try especially since the rabbits don’t like them which I did not know.

  14. Saw this in a number of gardens and it seems to do beautifully. Didn’t know that it was so appealing to hummers and the pollinators and deer and rabbit resistant. I will have to recommend it.

  15. Did not realize this plant had foliage that was somewhat sticky and quite aromatic; the article confirmed Cleome is a prolific reseeder! Found an amazing small garden display, dedicated to Cleome hassleriana, in front of a bed & breakfast in Lanesboro MN while traveling there in early SEPT. I stopped to photograph this lovely display and commented to my husband that this was the largest display of Cleome I had ever found. The Manager of the B&B was sitting nearby and overheard me; she said I was one of very few people who was actually able to identify this flower. As expected, this Cleome garden was pretty in pink!

  16. I never thought to use the cleome as a cut flower. They are striking in a flower bed.

  17. I live out in the country so it’s nice to know that the deer and rabbits do not eat Cleome’s and it’s a bonus that they have few insects or disease problems. Will try some next year. Also nice to learn of all the different varieties.

  18. I am looking forward to harvesting some of the seedpods and preserving them over the winter. I plan to start them indoors and will transplant them into an island type flower bed at our church as soon as we pass the average date of the last frost in our area. Looking forward to using these flowers to teach our Neighborhood Summer Camp youth about how these reseed, are helpful to hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. They will also be informed of the possible pleasant or unpleasant odors, their sticky and spiny nature and that deer and rabbits do not like them. The fun thing about them is that they bloom from early summer until frost so the Campers will be able to enjoy them for a long time.

  19. I have lots of rabbits hanging around my rural yard so this flower seems to be a beautiful answer to my dilemma. the cleome is not only beautiful to look at but also attracts the butterflies and hummingbirds of which I so enjoy pleasing their flower preferences

  20. I am glad to learn that they are not a favorite of rabbits. I would love to have these beautiful flowers in my garden

  21. I use to buy set plants from a local nursery, and plant them in my perennial bed as a backdrop to a bench. It is now difficult to find set plants to purchase. I have saved seeds from the plants to use, but found that after awhile, they did not look as nice as those flowers from the set plants. I did not know that stratification was needed, and this will be useful in the future.

  22. I have planted these in the past but did not realize they took up so much space. (They got very bushy) I like that they maintain their color into the fall. I will plant them again and look for the shorter variety. Good information included if I start by seed.

  23. I work in a garden center and our Cleome are very large in our big pots, much larger than mine. Many of the customers ask about it. I learned that you can pinch them to make them stay shorter and bushier. I also learned that there is a thornless variety, the thorns can be very hard on the hands.

  24. I had heard of Cleome before, but haven’t had any experience growing- nor have I known anyone with Cleome in their garden. I am glad that I chose to read this article, because I will be sure to look for a thornless variety of the plant to encourage helpers to weed with me. I like the thought of a plant that deer and rabbits will leave alone and don’t seem to have a lot of problem with disease. And, tolerant of dry conditions? My perfect plant!

  25. I can’t wait to try these next year. Even one or three would be a show stopper, you don’t need a lot of them for impact.

  26. I was just on a garden tour and they had Cleome. I am usually not a big fan, however, these were shorter, thornless and bushy. Because the ones I have used in the past were tall and leggy with thorns, I avoided them. This article mentioned pinching them back for a more bushy plant and named some thornless options. I was not aware the deer stayed away which is an added bonus!

  27. I am so glad i read this as I didn’t know they came in shorter types. I had them once but I guess my planting of them was in a spot too windy. I am sure the shorter versions would thrive better . I like the attractiveness of the seedpods too, it gives a real interest to the plant.

  28. What an interesting article. I have planted cleome but usually the taller varieties. Two things I learned is that they should be pinched back for bushier plants and that the seeds need light to germinate. I have a shorter variety and will have to check to see the if it hasn’t produced seeds.

  29. I enjoyed this article and learned a great deal about the spider flower, mainly that I should plant some in my mixed bed. I am always looking for deer resistant plants and also like the idea of interesting seed pods after flowering. Good to know it is not invasive.

  30. I appreciate the late summer color. I’m always looking for August and September color…anything to put off the monochrome of winter. There are many more varieties than I knew of. I will have to look for a few new ones to add to my garden.
    I’ve always thought of these plants as perennial, but they are just good re-seeders.
    I will try thinning the self-seeded plants to 1 foot apart, 3 feet if you want bushier plants. Again, I didn’t know they’d get bushier, since I have just let them re-seed themselves at will.
    Didn’t know seeds had to be cold stratified. Learned lots of new things about a plant that I’ve had in my garden for years!

  31. I grew cleome years ago. This article reminded me how much I enjoyed them. I did not know there were shorter versions.

  32. Have grown them for years, as they are robust and colorful well into Fall.

  33. I love this flower. We just moved to Fond du Lac Cty and I was not sure they would be prolific. It is nice to know the other colors. I have only grown the pink and White ones. I have never grown the purple ones. I would always let them reseed themselves in Racine and they always did. But I think I would just let the pods come on and collect the seeds up here. This article was a really nice reminder of a great favorite flower that I must add to my garden. Thank you.

    p.s. I always liked the look of the pods coming on the tall stalks and found them as interesting as the Globe Alliums. Nice to know that they will flourish all the way up to frost.

  34. I have never planted cleome so it was interesting to learn about. I learned it was a tall annual that may reseed. It gets as wide as it does tall. It can be pinched back to make it bushier. It comes in shades of white, pink, and purple. Good for a cottage garden. Not considered invasive. Good pollinator plant. May have a skunk like scent.

  35. Does anyone have experience with Cleome. Looks like it might be a good choice to hide/cover-up septic system vents.

  36. I love these. I only knew of one. I’ll have to look for the other cultivars.

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