13
May
2019

The Better Cleomes

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‘Senorita Blanca’ is the best white Cleome we have found

Gardening graybeards among us may remember Cleome as that groovy plant with the space-age flowers, deeply palmate leaves, pastel petal clusters, and long whisker-like stems. As much as we love this plant we also vividly recall the pricks of its many spines; therefore, we were very pleased when new Cleomes appeared in 2012, bred to bring this Victorian cottage garden classic into the modern age.

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Cleomes are busy summer feeding stations in Cincinnati

THE MAJOR IMPROVEMENTS

Not all Cleomes are created equal, and the new ones are definitely better. In our opinion, the best improvements come from Danziger’s Clio series and ‘Señorita Blanca’ from Proven Winners—they have the same Cleome style and charm, but delivered in a more professional package. First and foremost there are hardly any spines. The few that do appear are soft and pliable, which makes planting and maintenance much easier and not memorable at all.

Second, these plants are much shorter and grab less space. Those heritage cultivars grow over your head and lean on the fences for support. Clio varieties reach about three feet tall on a stout stem, whereas ‘Señorita Blanca’ grows a few inches shorter. We like to plant our 8-inch pots about 18 to 24 inches apart for a comfortable distance, or closer for a more thickly massed look. Also, these breeding changes allow the classic Cleome look to go into more places. For example, the plants don’t require staking—an important feature for heavy back-of-the-border work. In addition, when the light is strongly directional, like in front of a boxwood hedge, the plants lean gracefully instead of over-reaching and flopping.

Lastly, the new Cleomes have sterile flowers so the plants don’t cycle into dormancy after the first wave. They continue to chug with flowers for the entire season, and the base of the plant doesn’t turn yellow or straggly. Overall, they manage the details in a cleaner and tidier way.

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‘Clio Magenta’ grew about hip high in our Pathway Garden last year

DRIFTING IN CLOUDS

Cleome looks best when it’s planted in drifts, streams, or stands. A single Cleome feels like the garden equivalent of a finger pointing—although that may be the look you want. Because the color sits so high, Cleomes are often planted in stands or masses as centerpieces, surrounded by a skirt of lower plants. If you work in containers, plant them with spreading Petunias to handle the mounding and trailing aspects, and use Cleome to fill the thriller role.

Another popular technique is to mix Cleome with the other baristas from the cottage garden cafe like Zinnia, Cosmos, Sunflowers, Rudbeckia, Dahlia, or Celosia. Any combination looks good if it’s well-mixed. One technique to avoid is planting in a row—the statuesque look of Cleome makes it vulnerable to the soldiers-in-a-line problem, so plant in a diamond pattern to avoid that cash crop look.

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A drift of ‘Clio Pink Lady’ shows the sophisticated texture of Cleomes

THE MISSING WHITE

Unfortunately, Cleome struggles to deliver that pure white we like so much—there is always a touch of pink. White is especially important in Cleomes because of their cloudy, airy blooming style, so we turn to ‘Señorita Blanca’ as the best one out there.

‘Señorita Blanca’ is nearly always white, although we’ve noticed some pink appearing late in the season when the cool weather returns. We’ve also discovered that this variety is especially good at container work since it grows a little shorter and a little thinner than the others. ‘Señorita Blanca’ doesn’t grab as much real estate on a per-plant basis, but it still delivers that Cleome thrill.

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‘Senorita Blanca’ grows about thigh high in front of our boxwoods

POLLEN AND CULTURE

Summer food is always popular with the birds and the bees, especially during the hot and humid months. Cleomes do well in this regard, and they remain standing because the deer don’t eat them. Surprisingly, the delicate flowers are durable in summer rains and windstorms.

Cleome doesn’t have any special soil needs but it does like regular water. Plants can last through an occasional dry spell, but they lower their bloom count once they notice the missing water so a regular schedule delivers the most reliable and long-lasting show. For light, we recommend a good half-day of solid sunshine. Cleome can handle tree overhangs and hedges behind it as long as it gets a solid blast of light for half the day.

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A good example of why Cleome is called ‘Spider Flower’

For a distinctive summer look, Cleome delivers the goods. It runs all the color along the tops of the stems which gives the whole planting a wispy, floating, cloud-like feel. Plants have a high bloom count, but you can see through all the fuzzy softball-sized flowers. Cleome is what dandelions and baby’s breath would look like if they became supermodels.

  • ‘Clio Magenta’ and ‘Clio Pink Lady’ are available in the 4.5-, 6-, and 8-inch pot sizes.
  • ‘Senorita Blanca’ comes in the 6-inch and 8-inch pot.

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‘Clio Pink Lady’ grew to the hip next to our Salvia ‘Mysty’

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