By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Every year the National Garden Bureau selects one plant as its "plant of the year." In the year 2000, the zinnia takes its turn in the spotlight!
Zinnias are popular with most gardeners as they are easy to grow from seed or bedding plants; come in many colors, shapes, and sizes; and adapt well to most growing conditions. Most varieties are prolific bloomers, making them excellent for landscape color or as cut flowers. They also are available in compact varieties suitable for hanging baskets, window boxes, and containers.
Zinnias weren't always as popular, however. Although native to North and South America, not everyone found them attractive or desirable as a landscape plant. In fact, when the Spanish fist saw the zinnia species in Mexico, they considered the flower so unattractive that they named it "mal de ojos," which is Spanish for "sickness of the eye!"
Seeds brought back to Europe in the 18th century caused little excitement although the plant did get a new name. It was named for the man who wrote the first scientific description of the flower, Dr. Johann Gottfried Zinn. But it wasn't until the late 19th century that plant breeders started to pay any attention to this species.
The start of the zinnia's real popularity came around 1920 when Bodger Seeds Ltd. introduced the dahlia-flowered 'Giant Dahlia.' John Bodger discovered it as a natural mutation in a field of 'Mammoth' and within the next few years selected the 'California Giant' (a large, flat-flowered variety) from the strain. What made it so attractive to gardeners was that it was available in different colors. It also was considered to be a new trend in plant habit and flower form. It even won a gold medal from the Royal Horticultural Society of England, making everyone want to grow this prize-winning flower!
Today, zinnias come in single, double, or semidouble flower forms. You can buy varieties in solid or bi-colors and with button-type flowers, beehives (small blooms with rows of flat petals), cactus-shaped flowers (petals roll under and twist and bend), and dahlia-shaped flowers (large, flat, and usually semi-double). They are available in every color except blue!
Zinnias are easy to start from seeds, indoors or outdoors. Just follow the directions on the seed packet. For earlier bloom, you may want to start seeds indoors about four to six weeks before the average last frost date in your area. Zinnias also are available as bedding plants although you won't find as large a selection as you would if you purchase seeds to grow your own.
Zinnias will need to be watered regularly. Although they come from arid regions and love hot weather, they do need moisture. Plantings should be fertilized at least twice during the growing season. Use a balanced granular or water-soluble fertilizer, for instance, one with 20-20-20 on the label. Or use a slow-release fertilizer when you plant.
That's all it takes to grow zinnias! So why not celebrate the "Year
of the Zinnia" by planting some tried and true, as well as some new, zinnia
varieties in your garden this year!