Gardening in triple digit weather has its challenges in our Bakersfield gardens. Mrs. P thinks we should narrow our focus during dare we say it, warmish days, and, as they say, “Keep the Mission Small.” Plant zinnias!
Few plants offer the dazzling array of color choices and massive amounts of flowers that characterize the Zinnia family. Only dahlia, and, perhaps, roses can compete for size of bloom, intensity of color, and just pure fanfare. They bellow out, “Look Ma, no hands!” Zinnias ask very little of gardeners and give so very much. They are a heat-loving plant that will bloom during late July and into late fall, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. I’ve used zinnias in Thanksgiving arrangements which shows how long they can bloom.
Zinnias can be grown almost anywhere. According to all my botanical books, they only require well-draining soil. “Well- draining soil” are three words that used to make me cringe. It’s like starting to bite into something delicious and seeing a label that says, “40,000 calories.” If you, like moi, have clay soil, none of the wonderful things about zinnias will matter; they’ll die a miserable death. However, there is light at the end of the clay tunnel. It’s worked for me in my flower beds and while not a speedy method, it’s really the only good solution. Apply two inches of compost to your planting area, dig it in and water well prior to sowing zinnia seeds or planting six-plants from garden centers. If you already have well-draining soil, I hate you.
Members of the huge Aster family, zinnias are closely related to daisies. They are primarily a native of Mexico. When the Spanish first saw this particular zinnia species in the 1500s, they thought the flower was so unattractive that they named it Mal de Ojos, or “sickness of the eye!” Those Mexican zinnias were sparsely foliated, rangy plants with small, muddy orange colored flowers. Regardless of their looks, the Spanish plant collectors diligently carried these New World seeds back to Spain and on to other European plant collections. By the 18th Century a very interesting man appeared on the scene in Germany. His name was Dr. Johann Gottfried Zinn. He wore two professional hats, the first being a botanist and serving as the Director of the Botanic Garden of the University of Gottingen in Germany. In this capacity, he wrote the first botanical description of our Mal de Ojos flower and shared his findings with his friend, Carl Linnaeus. Now, Linnaeus, as many of you already know, was the famous Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist. He developed our system of naming, ranking, and classifying organisms. He decided to name Dr. Zinn’s little Mal de Ojos plant, zinnia, in honor of his friend. Mrs. P doesn’t know if this was a reflection of Dr. Zinn’s looks or not, but one wonders. The story continues. Another zinnia-type flower was discovered in Brazil and this zinnia was named zinnia elegans because yes, it was the beautiful sister of Dr. Zinn’s plant. This is the flower the world fell in love with. It’s the ancestral plant from which most of our modern day zinnias have developed. This zinnia produced larger, lusher flowers in colors from crimson to pale lavender. The earlier discovered Mexican zinnia with the sick eyes eventually got a total glam makeover by European commercial seed houses. By then, Dr. Zinn had died at only age 32. He left a legacy of much more than having zinnia flowers named after him.
The second professional hat he wore was being a medical doctor. His anatomical discoveries included Zinn’s artery, Zinn’s ligament, Zinn’s membrane, and Zinn’s zone, a system of fibers holding the lens of the eye in place. I don’t know about you but the juxtaposition of the original sick-eyed zinnia flower and the ophthalmologic features of Dr. Zinn’s eye structures are pretty profound, wouldn’t you say? What are the odds of a flower and the anatomy features of the eye both having one man’s name? Who else would tell you these things?
In 1798 the first zinnia seeds were offered for sale to the public in the U.S. Americans, for some reason, weren’t interested. The French thought otherwise and by 1856 had developed the first truly double forms of the flower, like “Can Can” dancers bobbing up in the garden. All of Europe and Great Britain took a liking to these zinnias and by 1864, purple, orange, red, and salmon colored zinnias had made their way back to North America and into our gardens. Leave it to the French to make zinnias sexy! Ooo-la-la! Next came the dwarf zinnias and then on to the development of the mammoths or ‘California Giants.’ Now we’re talking. By the 1920s zinnias came in every color but blue and California gardens never looked better in the summer.
As I’ve mentioned, zinnias are extremely easy to grow in hot summers. They do need at least six hours of sun a day. My favorite way to plant zinnia seed is to make little holes with my finger, no more than a half-inch deep, six inches apart. I drop a single seed in each hole and close the hole by pinching the soil around it. Then I water well. Leaving six inches between the large zinnia plant varieties produces strong, healthy plants with jumbo blossoms. This is enough distance so that there will be air circulation around the individual plants to keep powdery mildew at a minimum. Oh yes, folks, there’s always some lemon-lipped situation lurking on the horizon. Full disclosure: Mrs. P is not aware of any zinnia variety that is not even a tiny bit susceptible to powdery mildew. This can cause the taller varieties’ foliage to look a bit nasty by early fall, although the blooms will still be gorgeous. Here are a few tried and true remedies: camouflage the lower foliage with shorter annuals in front and most importantly, try not to wet the leaves. A slow release fertilizer, 5-10-5, is a good choice, as is diluted fish fertilizer.
There are few other garden flowers that are as wonderful as zinnias for cutting to use in arrangements. They’re known as “cut and come again” flowers. Cut one flower stem above a pair of leaves and, within days, two new stems with flower buds will have taken its place. Properly handled, zinnias will last at least a week in a vase. Cut them early in the morning before the sun has had a chance to dry or wilt them. Select blooms that haven’t fully opened. Don’t worry, they’ll continue to open indoors. Avoid tightly closed buds. Bring a bucket of water with you into the garden and place the stems in it as you cut so they don’t become clogged with air bubbles. Once indoors, re-cut the stems under water at an angle, stripping the lower leaves and let “rest” for a few hours before arranging. This may seem time consuming but as Mumsie used to say, do you want fast or forever? Or at least a week?
If you’d like to instill in youngsters a love of flower gardening, there’s no better way to start than by having them grow zinnias. They’re very quick to sprout (less than a week) and terrifically colorful. These qualities make them an ideal children’s’ plant. ‘Scarlet King’ and ‘Canary Bird’ are two good varieties to start with, but there are many pinks, purples, oranges, and my personal faves, the lime greens, to choose from.
Be sure to share the latest zinnia news with your junior gardeners:
Last January, aboard the International Space Station, American Astronaut Scott Kelly planted a few zinnia seeds and carefully coaxed a brightly colored zinnia flower to bloom. This was the first time a zinnia flower had bloomed in space.