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Gardening with Stephanie Tames

Spiderflower: Beautiful but beware

    I’m always slow to believe that there could be too much a good thing, especially when you’re talking about plants. Who could possibly pass up four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) with their wonderful fragrance filling the late afternoon air? And what could be better than the fall blooming and heat tolerant obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana ). Unfortunately in both cases I’ve cursed the day I planted them as they quickly took over their original beds and traveled uninvited to nearby flower beds. Both are under control, but now I’m faced with another favorite flower growing a little too well: Cleome hassleriana, spiderflower.  
    Spiderflower is perfect for our southern climate. It’s heat and humidity tolerant, likes bright, sunny locations, doesn’t require a lot of care, is generally pest free, and has a long growing season.  But its best attribute is its lovely, delicate form with either white, pink, purple, or a rose colored flower about one to two inches wide that bloom at stem tips. Spiderflower gets its name from its long stamens which some say look like the legs of a spider. The plant grows up to five feet with buds blooming from the lower stem first.  Seed pods form fairly quickly so that a single plant will have pods hanging gracefully from the lower part of the plant while it’s still blooming at the top.  
    Many gardening books say spiderflower is a good plant for a beginner gardener because of its easy care and propagation. This season I’ve seen spiderflower at several garden shops but you can also sow seeds directly in the garden once the danger of frost is past. And this could be a down side of spiderflower: because it sets seed so quickly, if you have just one plant this year, your next year’s garden is likely to be filled with spiderflowers.
    That’s not an entirely bad situation. An area filled with spiderflowers can be beautiful, and combined with other annuals and perennials it reminds me of an English cottage garden.  In our area, spiderflowers tend to bloom early so once they’ve finished blooming you can replace them with other annuals that will go through the summer and into the fall, such as zinnias.  Since they are rather tall, it’s best to try to keep them to the back of the garden; however, I like the overflowing look, too, so it doesn’t bother me if they tumble out over the driveway.  It also doesn’t bother me to yank a plant up if its shading something else or looking too leggy – I know there are still plenty of seeds hiding in the garden for next year.
    If you don’t want lots of plants next year, you’ll need to pull the plants before the seeds fall; if that fails, start pulling when the plants appear in the spring. Some gardening books say the leaves of this plant resemble Cannabis spp. so its easy to spot.  
    Spiderflowers are a great addition to any garden and their easy care and heat tolerance make them an especially good choice for our area. Just remember,  they can become invasive: in gardening there can be too much of a good thing.

Stephanie Tames is editor of the Gardening Section. If you would like to contribute and article or have any suggestions, you can contact her at Georgia Southern Botanical Garden, 871-1149, or at stames@georgiasouthern.edu

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