Adrienne Langer illustration
Oh, the zinnia. It is the reliable, resilient, ever-producing annual of the Southern garden. Want to take it up a horticultural notch? Try an heirloom zinnia. It is something else altogether — steeped in a bit of history, harking back to gardens that span time and the globe, and thriving because of its Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest tendencies.
The planting of an heirloom seed makes you part of the larger thread of gardening history, someone who continues to cultivate varieties that were beloved by gardeners before us — in their fields, their cottage plots and their estate cutting gardens. Nostalgic zinnia names like Granny's Bouquet speak to this heritage and the early tradition of passing down seeds from gardener to gardener.
The role of the backyard gardener in the heirloom world is huge. Randel Agrella of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company explains, "Heirlooms are resilient for many reasons. A main one has to be that often [people] just love them. Many treasured heirloom types had been long believed to be extinct but were rediscovered, often having been preserved in a single garden for decades."
The botanical science behind heirlooms is this: They are cultivated through open pollination only — casting their existence in nature through the wind, insects and birds. Also, for a plant to be considered an heirloom, it must have been in existence for at least 50 years, without having been genetically altered. (Zinnias date to the late 1700s in Mexico.)
Heirloom zinnias are perfect for the new gardener or for a child's cutting and/or butterfly garden. You can start them from seeds. Scatter them in soil that has some compost worked into it and is in full sun, then cover with a 1/2 inch of soil. They will withstand our Virginia heat, humidity and droughts, but they need warmth to germinate, so wait on planting until days and nights are both warm and the threat of frost is over. (They won't start growing until the temperatures stay warm — around 50 to 55 degrees both day and night.) They should germinate within five days, and it is best to thin out the seedlings to every 2 to 3 inches.
Let me tell you a little something about the resilience of heirloom zinnias. Last winter, a friend gave me a packet of Renee's Garden Blue Point zinnias as part of a baby-shower gift. Later that spring, with a month-old baby snuggled up against me, I scattered the seeds in my zinnia patch. The dogs regularly walked over the patch, the seedlings were accidentally weed-whacked by an overzealous husband and mulch was dumped on top of them (my husband again). They thrived. They bloomed through October. They stopped garden visitors in their tracks. I was able to bring my mom a vibrant, lush bouquet once a week.
It was a lesson in survival in my own backyard, and a glimpse into how heirlooms endure through time and life's (gardening) challenges.
Peruvian: This variety, available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, dates to the 18th century and originates from South America. According to the SESE catalog, they are "flowers of uncluttered simplicity and antique elegance." Single blooms are 1 1/2 inches in varying shades of red. This variety is also grown on the West Lawn at Monticello, as they were a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. southernexposure.com
Blue Point: Available through Renee's Garden, these are the ultimate cutting heirloom zinnia. Easy to grow and incredibly resilient, they come in a dizzying array of colors, with huge blooms that continue through the first frost. Also beloved by bees and butterflies. reneesgarden.com
Envy: Dating to the mid-1960s, the unusual chartreuse-green blooms of this variety are 3 inches across. The original Envy offered varying shades of green, but it has since been refined to a more consistent coloration. Randel Agrella from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds says, "I love to grow it combined with Lavender Queen, a deep lavender type, as I think the two colors together are stunning in the garden and in arrangements." rareseeds.com