If you’re looking to add a low-maintenance annual flowering plant to your garden, look no further than the rocky mountain bee plant! These plants originated in western North America and southern British Columbia. They can thrive when grown inside their native range with little to no human intervention.
These plants were used as a food source by Native Americans, but today they are admired as pollinator plants that will attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and native bees to your garden. They also support local wildlife since the seeds are an important food source for doves and other small birds.
These native plants grow tall, sometimes reaching up to 6 feet! Their tall, lanky stems sway in the breeze, topped with beautiful pink-purple flowers. Because of their height, it’s best to pick a location in your garden where they won’t shade out smaller plants. Bee plants (Cleome serrulata) can help create visual interest in your pollinator garden when grown behind other smaller flowering plants.
They readily self-seed year after year, which leads to them being found in patches in open woods, prairies, and even growing in ditches alongside roads (they seem to prefer disturbed ground). Cleome serrulata can survive in poor soil conditions and is drought tolerant, making it a great choice for the water-wise garden!
Once established, Cleome serrulata needs little in the way of water other than what it will receive from natural rainfalls. In times of extended drought, it may need some additional moisture. In the past, it has also been cultivated for use as a dye.
Quick Care Guide
Beeplant can get quite tall, sometimes up to six feet. Source: AndreyZharkikh
|Common Name||Rocky mountain bee plant, rocky mountain beeweed, stinking clover, spider flower, skunk weed, Navajo spinach|
|Scientific Name||Cleome serrulata|
|Height & Spread||6 feet tall by 3 feet wide|
|Light||Full sun to light shade|
|Soil||Light sandy soil, well-draining|
|Water||Low water, drought tolerant|
|Pests & Diseases||Pest and disease resistant|
All About The Rocky Mountain Bee Plant
Up close, the many stamens of a C. serrulata flower are prominent. Source: Matt Lavin
Cleome serrulata, or rocky mountain bee plant, is a plant in the Cleomaceae family that goes by more than one common name. It is also known as rocky mountain beeweed, stinking clover, spider flower, skunk weed, and Navajo spinach. Despite some of the unflattering ‘stinking clover’ name regarding the scent of its flowers, it doesn’t smell all that bad!
Some have described the pink, purple, or red flowers of this species as smelling “clammy” or “briny,” similar to capers, which makes sense since rocky mountain bees are related to the caper plant (the Cleomaceae family belongs to the same order, Brassicales).
The smell is not pungent, and you really have to lean into the flower buds to smell it. This smell is how the lovely pink to reddish-purple flowers with four petals have attracted pollinators for some time. Species in this family tend to contain resins that emit scents.
Also, despite some of the names that refer to it as a weed, it is not considered invasive and is not a noxious weed. Cleome serrulata is, in fact, a wonderful native plant that attracts all types of pollinators such as butterflies, bees, and small birds such as hummingbirds. Rocky mountain beeplant is native to western North America, and its habitat stretches from Southern British Columbia all the way south to New Mexico.
This annual plant usually has pink flowers, but they can be reddish purple as well. The flowers have four petals and six long stamens. They have an erect growing habit of a single tall main stem and several side shoots or stems that branch off from that.
The spirally arranged leaves are trifoliate with three slender leaflets, and identifying the young leaves is the best way to recognize seedlings before they’ve flowered. Bee plants put down a very deep taproot, sometimes reaching up to a foot deep.
Once you begin growing a rocky mountain beeplant, you’re sure to soon have an endless supply. Cleome serrulata is an annual plant that produces fruit that develop into seed pods at the end of the growing season. These pods resemble small beans, and each contains several seeds. This seed comes in handy since the bee plant does not survive any level of frost and will die in the winter. You’ll need to sow each year to continue your bee plant patch, but the seeds are very easy to collect.
Cleome serrulata was collected long in the past, in 1804 during the Lewis and Clark expedition. It was noted at that time that it was being cultivated by Native Americans. It was traditionally used as a food source, a medicinal treatment, and a source of dye for coloring fabric and pottery.
A black dye could be made by boiling down the older woody stems, and a yellow-green dye could be made by boiling down the fresh young spirally-arranged leaves. All parts of the plant are edible raw, cooked, or dried. Rocky Mountain bee plant tea is said to be useful as a treatment to relieve stomach aches and reduce fever.
Cleome serrulate has trifoliate leaves. Source: Matt Lavin
Cleome serrulata species (and many of those in the Cleomaceae family) thrive on borderline neglect, especially in their native range from southern British Columbia to northern New Mexico. This makes them a great choice for parkways or areas on your property where you wish to utilize the space to bring in more pollinators.
Sun and Temperature
Navajo spinach prefers full sun although it will tolerate some light shade in the latter part of the day. 6-8 hours of sunlight per day will keep your bee plant happy. For this reason, in their natural habitat, the long stamens and slender leaflets of these native plants are commonly found growing in open woods, prairies, or on roadsides where they can receive full sun.
These native flowers can survive a variety of conditions and can be reliably grown in USDA zones 1-10. They can even be found in elevations as high as 7200 feet. As an annual, this plant is not frost-tolerant and will die at the end of the growing season. It is, however, drought-tolerant and handles hot summer temperatures of 90° Fahrenheit and above very well.
Water and Humidity
Rocky mountain bees are perfectly suited to survival unassisted in their native range of Western North America, from New Mexico to the Dakotas. For this reason, you may never need to water your rocky mountain bee plant at all! It’s important to water early in the spring to aid in the germination of the seeds, but once they are established and growing in the summer, they can survive on very little at all.
As with most plants, water them early in the day or in the afternoon after the heat of the day has passed. Water at the base of the plant to avoid wetting the foliage, especially in humid areas, to prevent powdery mildew issues. Once the plants have gone to seed, watering is no longer necessary. Allow the seed pods to dry out on the plant and collect for sowing next year.
Another benefit of adding mountain bee plants to your garden is the fact that they not only tolerate but prefer poor soil conditions. The Cleome serrulata species prefers light sandy soil that is well-draining. They put out taproots that can penetrate the ground up to 2 feet deep! This means that you need not worry about amending the soil at your planting location.
Their three slender leaflets and flowers with four petals can be seen thriving in a roadside ditch after all. The specific pH of the soil doesn’t matter as much as ensuring adequate drainage, as this species doesn’t do well in heavy wet soils.
Rocky Mountain bee plant produces seed pods that look like beans. Source: Matt Lavin
Good news! It’s not necessary to fertilize your native rocky mountain bee plant at all! They are wonderfully low maintenance in all aspects. Not only do they require low water and prefer sandy soil, but they also don’t require any fertilizer.
Fertilizing your rocky mountain bee plant won’t hurt it, but it isn’t necessary. Plant it in a full sun location with well-draining soil, and you’ll be enjoying beautiful pink flowers that attract honey bees and other beneficial insects all summer long!
The rocky mountain beeplant can be pruned for a more compact appearance. However, the pink and purple flowers of this species are particularly stunning when left to grow wild! Like the rest of its family, it will grow erect and tall, sometimes up to 6 feet, with several stems branching off from the main stem.
Each stem will put out pink to reddish-purple flowers with six long stamens. If you choose to prune them, prune back the side shoots on the plant and allow only one main stem to continue to grow. This will also reduce the overall number of pink flowers.
Rocky mountain beeplant is an expert at producing its own seed. These are self-pollinators and create their own fruit. Once the bee plant has concluded flowering for the season, it will then focus its energy on producing what appear to be tiny bean pods. Each pod contains several seeds.
Leave the pods on the plant to dry at the end of summer and then collect the seed for next year. Don’t forget that these seeds require stratification so they will need to be planted in the fall for best results. They also require sunlight for germination. Sprinkle them across your planting location and then cover them with a fine dusting of sand or light soil.
Cleome serrulata flowers grow in clusters. Source: Cletus Lee
Aside from their lovely flower petals, yet another benefit of growing this plant is that it has no known pests or diseases that trouble it! There are some growing problems to consider and some minor issues that may crop up, but otherwise, the rocky mountain bee plant is trouble-free.
Most growing problems are related to the seeds. Rocky Mountain bee plant seed requires sunlight to germinate. For this reason, it is easy to accidentally bury the seeds too deep, preventing them from sprouting. When direct sowing the seed, be sure to cover with a thin dusting of sandy soil or use a minimal layer of vermiculite. Since vermiculite reflects light, some of the light is reflected downwards into the soil, which aids in the germination of these seeds.
This seed also requires stratification to properly germinate. The best way to achieve this is to sow your seed in the fall so that they can experience the natural cold, dormant period during winter. The plant itself will tell you when it’s time to plant the seed as the pods mature and dry out on the plant. Then you can crack them open and spread the seed. If you’d like to plant them in the spring, they’ll need to experience a faux dormant period which can be duplicated by placing the seeds in a damp paper towel in the refrigerator for at least 30 days before planting.
There are no serious pests for the rocky mountain bee plant! That being said, they are not completely immune to leaf-eating pests like leaf miners, aphids, and earwigs. However, they seem to prioritize other plants and leave bee plants alone.
There are no severe diseases for the rocky mountain bee plant! That does not mean that they are completely immune to diseases that would affect the foliage, such as powdery mildew, or that the roots are immune to poor drainage conditions that cause root rot.
However, they are generally disease resistant. It’s still a good idea not to wet the foliage while watering and avoid planting in a location with poor drainage. These issues are more of an issue outside of its native range, particularly where it is humid, as this bee plant is used to surviving in hot and arid conditions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Rocky Mountain bee plant draws in many bees and bumblebees. Source: USFWS Mountain Prairie
Q: Is Rocky Mountain bee plant invasive?
A: It is not considered invasive, but in ideal growing conditions, it can easily self-seed year after year. For this reason, it is usually found in dense patches along roadsides and on prairies.
Q: Are Rocky Mountain bee plants perennials?
A: No, they are annuals that must be planted each year.
Q: When should you plant a bee plant?
A: The seeds require a period of stratification during the winter, so fall planting is recommended. Otherwise, they will need at least 30 days in your refrigerator before planting in the spring.
Q: Where do Rocky Mountain bee plants grow?
A: As its name would suggest, in the Rocky Mountain region, including southern Canada and the western United States. It is also found as far east as Ohio and as far southwest as Texas. It has even been naturalized in parts of Maine.
Q: Does Cleome like sun or shade?
A: Cleome prefers full sun but will tolerate light shade.
Q: Is Cleome a wildflower?
A: Yes, it is a wildflower.
Q: Do hummingbirds like cleome?
A: Yes, they love it!
Q: Is cleome poisonous to humans?
A: No, all parts of the plant are edible, either raw, cooked, or dried, and have been used by Native Americans in traditional medicines.