Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
August, 2010
Regional Report

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Zinnias - a cutting garden favorite for color, variety, and long stems.

Zowie Zinnias!

The mounds of festive, deep, rich colors- orange, magenta, yellow, pink, gold, salmon, chartreuse- are exquisite, reminiscent of botanical paintings by the Old Dutch masters. Clustered in a rainbow bouquet, a dozen or more flowers comprise a masterpiece. Some ostentatious blooms span more than four inches. The smallest ones hold white petals dabbed with red.

Each time I look, something different catches my eye. These days I'm admiring the zinnia bounty AND harvesting frequently. In May, I'd carefully planted Zinnia elegans 'Granny's Bouquet' and the heirloom 'Cut and Come Again' seeds in a corner of my mostly vegetable garden. My hope was to have a few cut flowers.

I wasn't expecting much. Fifteen-plus years ago, my zinnia experience in a community garden had been disappointing. Zinnias brought to mind a mess of powdery mildew and rust - with the rare flower. Later experiments with new varieties in containers were not pretty. I'd all but dismissed zinnias, till the packets of Renee's Garden seeds arrived. Now I'm clipping and arranging a beautiful, long-stemmed floral kaleidoscope every day.

Botanically speaking, the zinnia is a composite flower in the Asteraceae, aka Compositae family. What looks like one flower is actually an array of many small flowers of two types. The bright, showy petals are a halo of "ray flowers;" the center is composed of tight disk flowers.

The large, "Look at ME" pink and red zinnias in my bouquets resemble elegant dahlias. The quarter-sized chartreuse, yellow, and white blossoms look more like tightly-petaled daisies.

To my ear, zinnia is an odd word, an even odder name for a flower. Where did it come from? In the mid-1700s, renowned Carl Linnaeus, the Father of Taxonomy, named zinnia for J.G. Zinn, a German botanist. I've seen numbers for Zinnia species range from 12 to 20. Their origin is tropical America, primarily Mexico. Zinnia elegansis also referred to as Crassina elegans or Zinnia violacea, an older name from Linnaeus's time around 1791.

Zinnia Culture
In southeastern Pennsylvania, global warming is working in my zinnias' favor. June and July, now August - hot, sunny, very dry. As per a Florida-based website, "Zinnias do best in well drained soil with infrequent watering. They are quite drought tolerant. Zinnias are warm weather annuals. They do best in climates with long, hot, dry summers. Zinnias may become infected with powdery mildew in humid climates, especially if they don't have good air circulation all around them." I suffer from summer's high humidity. The zinnias, not so much in their open, airy patch.

As luck would have it, sowing seeds in situ is the zinnia's preference. They like it best when sown outdoors after the last frost, where the flowers are to be grown. It's okay to start seeds indoors and transplant 6- to 8-week-old seedlings outside. Zinnias don't like their roots disturbed though. So move them carefully.

In my experience with clients' cutting gardens, the zinnias I start indoors look scraggly all summer, in astonishing contrast to the tall, thick-stemmed, seed-sown in place beauties sunbathing next to my beets.

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