Many gardeners are familiar with the three sisters concept of planting: inter-planting corn, squash and beans as compatible companions in the garden. Adding the fourth sister to the combination promotes growth of these and other vegetables and is an easy method of pest control. Meet Cleome hassleriana.
Cleome hassleriana is a fragrant, self-seeding annual often grown for lush, intricate flowers. Fragrance and the showy blooms of this plant attract the pollinators necessary for fruit and vegetable production. Blooms also attract beneficial insects to lessen threats posed by insect pests.
When using this planting quad, most recommend first planting the corn and then alternating the other seeds when the corn is about knee high. Only a few of the tiny Cleome seeds are necessary in each mound, often just one will germinate.
This old fashioned flower is sometimes called a spider leg because it is tall, with a hairy stalk. Tiny thorns make it prickly, be cautious when handling the fourth sister. It is also commonly referred to as Spider flower and sometimes as Grandfather’s Whiskers.
Flowers of the Cleome are often multi-colored, but some bloom in single colors of pastel pinks, violets and white. Once planted and matured, the gardener will never again have to buy seeds or plants of this specimen. Seed is produced prolifically as plants reach the end of their life cycle.
Small green pods develop among the flowers and dry on the vine. Remove and save over winter, replanting in late winter or early spring. Any pods left on the stem will split and seeds will fall, rampantly self seeding and creating another mass of the magnificent planting companion.
The Cleome blooms in late spring to early summer and blooms last several weeks. Replant in mid-summer for a show to continue until frost
Cleome serrulata is also used as the fourth sister, often in areas west of the Rocky Mountains. Use the newer cultivar, Senorita Rosalita®, to avoid late season removal of seed pods and prolific re-seeding. This variety is not scented or thorny and may not exhibit the pest control properties of other types.
Include the versatile spider leg as a companion to the three sisters in vegetable plantings or as a striking center to an island bed, bordered by petunias. Enjoy the unusual fragrance when sitting near the summer garden. Remember to save the seeds for next year’s garden.