Spider power: Cleome for the garden


July and August take a toll on some plants: columbines and peonies can look bedraggled about now. But a few perennials and most annuals thrive with the heat. None more so than Spider flowers (Cleome) which are just coming into their stride. You can find them many places at Denver Botanic Gardens (not to mention all around town), but the high raised bed near Marnie's is an especially good spot to view them up close and personal. There is something incredibly pleasing about these sumptuous, explosive heads of flower (with literally exploding seed pods ripening sequentially!). If you look beyond the grandiose spider plant in the foreground you may notice a large sunflower with something up front...let's take a closer look!

None other than Cleome serrulata, our native  annual spider plant. You can see this  blooming abundantly on median strips at the outskirts of Denver, and popping up in all sorts of native and ruderal settings. I was dazzled by spectacular deep violet purple forms on my way to DIA the other day on 54th Avenue.

Cleome serrulata 'Eleni'

Last year there was an fabulous display of an albino form in Wildflower Treasures that traces to a field trip I took twenty years ago to the San Luis valley with my baby daughter Eleni. We noticed a white flash by the car: it was a spider plant! There were only one or two pods ripening, but they had seed and from that pinch of seed we produced some fine displays at the Gardens over the years. Just realized I may have to dig into my seedbank: I haven't seen this reappear this year!

One spider plant I have yearned to grow is this vivid, chrome yellow species, Cleome lutea, that can be abundant in dry washes throughout the West. I photographed this specimen a week or so ago at Jim and Dorothy Borland's fabulous garden in West Denver. They have this self sowing and appearing here and there around their garden for years! We need to beg lots of seed from them to get this awesome native going at the Gardens!

While not as gigantic or a variable as their cultivated cousins, native Cleome have the advantage of thriving with little or no supplemental water in Colorado (with increasingly expensive water rates you may find yourself xeriscaping!) If you have a xeriscape or dry garden give this one a try. Wild seed is often gathered and sold by specialty collectors...but you may want to check out some of the wild stands: among the fresh flowers you can often  find dozens of nearly ripe capsules. Collect with care! They can explode dramatically when plucked!

Incidentally, recent botanical research has taken these out of the Caper family (Capparidaceae) and put them among the Crucifers. They do remind me a tad of Stanleya, another wonderful native plant with annual tendencies in my garden. So much for spider plants cutting capers!

At the Gardens


Doris Boardman
Matt and Mark - Thank you so much for your comments and suggestions! One of the great things about our blog is that we have over 30 blog authors, all posting individually. That creates a challenge in training since they all save images in many different ways because we have so many different types of editing software. To make things consistent, we have found it best to have them save to a specific maximum pixel width and maximum file size. However, the photos that Panayoti and our horticulturists post of specific flowers do deserve to be "ready for their closeup.”
Matt Pizzuti
Hey--I think I just made a discovery! A plant bought from the Denver Botanic Gardens at the May sale had some sort of other plant in in the soil (which showed up a couple months after it was in the ground) that we hadn't been able to identify. It's a single stem, now about 9" high. Without blooms, it resembles Blue Flax but the leaves seemed a bit too thick, an the stem a bit too sturdy (just a bit). It looks an awful lot like the stem of the Cleome serrulata, in the 2nd image. Perhaps that's what it is! ~~~~~~~ A suggestion for this blog: if the images aren't going to be enlarged by clicking on them, it would be better to just disable the image links altogether. In Wordpress you can do that using the image editing tool in the visual editor; just make sure that "none" is selected or that the "link" field is blank in the image editing window. Otherwise, what many web editors or bloggers do is upload a large image, but use the visual editor to scale it down so it appears small in the blog, then, by leaving the links intact, users can click to see the image itself get a version of it in full size. I'm not sure what kind of bandwith that eats up but it's a fairly common practice and if your images are optimized to the best resolution, it's not a big drag on bandwidth. Otherwise though, the fact that we really want to see these pictures up close, but clicking on them produces one that's the exact same size, is false hope!
Panayoti Kelaidis
Thank you both for your comments and inputs: I will make sure Doris Boardman (our indefatigable Webmaster) sees them (I suspect she has)... Mark, as usual, you overwhelm me! Thanks for your comments! and info: where to get that Cleomella! I love C. lutea here abouts (I am reluctant to give up the classic name..) But if you insist I will! Finally have Allium beesianum and A. sikkimensis, by the way. So I can die happy!
Mark McDonough
Addenda: Cleome platycarpa (Peritoma playcarpa) gallery: http://www.pnwflowers.com/flower/cleome-platycarpa/gallery
Mark McDonough
Cleome serrulata is a really good plant. There are many excellent annual "spiderflowers", and what a web the taxonomists have spun! Take a look at the online Flora of North America, and there are no Cleome anymore, they are Cleoserrata, Polanisia, Wislizenia, Cleomella, Peritoma, and others. Even the non-native old-fashioned spiderflower C. hassleriana is now the genus Tarenaya!!! http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=10199 So, Cleome serrulata is now Peritoma serrulata, and C. lutea is Peritoma lutea. There are better yellow "Cleome" than lutea, such as platycarpa, and on NARGS Forum a photo was posted of Cleomella hillmanii... http://nargs.org/smf/index.php?topic=282.msg5694#msg5694 For years I grew C. lutea, the flowers are small and overall give the appearance of a mustard weed. While the plant can grow large, it is usually smallish, and has very small simple leaflets in sets of 3, rarely 5. I successfully crossed it with the familiar coarse 5-7-leaflet C. hassleriana... and the resulting hybrids had large very robust foliage like C. hassleriana but with only 3 robust leaflets, and the dang ugliest few-flowered heads of dingy white and pinkish flowers... 1st generation uggo crosses, but with potential for improvement in further generations. But, I didn't have time nor energy to follow up on this effort... I may return to it one day. An annual that seeds about here is our native Polanisia dodecandra, basically a white Cleome with orange nectaries and long reddish "eyelashes", with sticky clammy acrid smelling foliage... a cute annual that I enjoy and allow to reseed here there and everywhere. PS1. I love the all white C. serrulata or Peritoma serrulata. PS2. I agree with Matt, photo links that show a separate page but the exact same size image, make me crazy. I suspect as Matt points out, it's a default behavior of blogs. Good subject, obviously it strikes a nerve! Regards, Mark McD. (The Onion Man, and occasional Spider Flower Man)

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