Rethinking a Farm Stand Flower

Why do flowers go in and out of fashion? In the 18th century, German botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn received a shipment of Asteraceae seeds from Mexico that locally had been considered an ugly weed. In Europe their reputation fared better; Carl Linnaeus dubbed them “zinnias” after Zinn, who died young.  Two centuries later, the reliably colorful flowers of Zinnia elegans were so popular in the United States that the introduction of a new variety caused a sensation at flower shows.

Today, however, the crayon colors of common zinnias are more likely to find their way into a farm stand bouquet than your neighbor’s beds of prize heirloom flowers. But not all zinnias are created equal. The other day our resident florist, Sophia Moreno-Bunge, found some impossibly pretty Zinnia haageana flowers that deserve a spot in any garden:

Photography by Sophia Moreno-Bunge for Gardenista.

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Above: Z. haageana ‘Persian Carpet’, introduced with great excitement in the United States in 1952, is an annual flower (save its seeds to sow next year) with bi-color blooms in a range of colors from deep burgundy to a glowing gold. A packet of 50 seeds is $1 from Park Seed.

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Above: Creating new zinnia cultivars was once big business in the United States. Have you heard the story about Luther Burbank?

After the renowned experimental horticulturalist died in 1926, all of America went into mourning for the man who had given the world the plumcot, the white blackberry, and the blight-resistant potato (created to fight famine in Ireland). Schools were closed in honor of Burbank’s passing,  newspaper editorials bemoaned the loss of a great plant wizard, and his fox terrier lay under his master’s coffin for three days without eating.

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Above:  What work had Burbank left unfinished when he died, people wondered?

The answer, it turned out, was in a rusted iron-bound trunk in which Burbank had squirreled away special seeds he’d collected over the years. A few years later, seedsman David Burpee bought the trunk, opened it, and found zinnia seeds.

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Above: After getting his hands on Burbank’s prize zinnia seeds, Burpee started working to develop a giant pastel colored zinnia.

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Above: In 1930, he introduced the new zinnia with great fanfare (for years he announced the company’s newest offerings at events he held in a ballroom in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York). By the way, he named the new hybrid Zinnia ‘David Burpee’.

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Above: By the mid 1950s, cross-pollination had created a “vast number of new varieties,” the New York Times reported. ” Zinnias are one of the most gregarious of flowers and cross-pollinate readily….In southern California, where the world’s supply of zinnia seed is grown, only one variety or color of zinnia is planted in one large seed field.”

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Above: The pomegranates in the arrangement came from Sophia’s garden.

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Above: In the arrangement, Sophia paired ‘Persian Carpet’ zinnias with explosion grass and pelargoniums.

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Above: By the mid 1960s, US gardeners also were familiar with zinnia varieties called pompon, Mexican carpet, Cupid, and Thumbelina.

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Above: Zinnias are a fast-growing plant, one of the quickest to grow from seed to flower (most will bloom in from 75 to 90 days after germination).


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Above: Native to Mexico and Central America, zinnias love heat and direct sunlight. Are you smitten yet?

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