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Meet the cleomes

Have you met the cleomes? They’re old, favorite garden plants that are enjoying renewed interest. The heirloom “Rose Queen” cleome originated in the West Indies and was introduced to the U.S. in the early 1800s.

By the 1830s, it was regularly listed in seed catalogs and still is today. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew cleomes. Interest in cleomes continued until the end of the 1800s. The Victorians loved cleomes and considered them exotic additions to their plant collections. They grew them in pots in their greenhouses and in perennial borders. And then just like hollyhocks and many other plants, cleomes suddenly seemed old fashioned.

Cleomes start out as gangly seedlings, but quickly grow into tall, stately plants with showy pink, white and lavender blooms with such long stamen that they look like whiskers or spiders’ legs; that’s why they’re often called spider plants. Some gardeners say that cleomes have the distinctive scent of skunk, especially when the early morning dew is still on the plants, but pollinators love them anyway. Plant cleomes and you’ll have hummingbirds, hummingbird moths and butterflies.

They’re tough plants and easy to grow. Cleomes laugh at late summer heat, humidity and drought. Just plant them in average soil, in full sun and water them regularly until they’re well established. If they get too tall and leggy, cut them back by half.

Cleomes aren’t heavy feeders and grow best when not fertilized. They don’t have any pests and are deer resistant too. If cleomes have any fault, it’s that they reseed prolifically. Many gardeners, however, consider reseeding positive, since there’s always a new crop of plants every spring and removing unwanted seedlings is easy.

Plant tall varieties in clusters at the back of perennial borders. New compact varieties work well at the front of borders and in pots. Both varieties pair well with zinnias, lantana, tall grasses, day lilies and salvias.

In Charlottesville, short cleomes are planted with lantana and tall purple grasses along Jefferson Park Avenue. They add color to a busy street and require little maintenance.

If you want to try cleomes in your garden next year, there are many choices. The relatively new sparkler series has a thick, compact growth habit and works well in pots. It’s lovely underplanted with petunias. The heirloom “Rose Queen” is still commonly available. It can grow to be more than six feet tall and reseeds prolifically. Other new varieties are sterile, so no seeds or seedlings to worry about.

Yes, one of Grandma’s favorites is cool again.

Cynthia Wood is a master gardener who writes two columns for The Herald. Her email address is cynthia.crewew23930@gmail.com.