What would you call a flower that is easy to grow,comes in a large variety of beautiful colors and forms, blooms a long time outdoors , makes a good cut flower for flower arrangements, reseeds itself, likes hot weather, attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, and is resistant to disease and insect damage?  You would call it a Zinnia!

Our grandmothers called it an Old Maid Plant because it was so easy to grow that you could cultivate it without any help. Another old -fashioned name for Zinnias is Youth- and- Old- Age, because they start out with vivid colors which fade to gray-brown as they age and also because they have multiple layers.  In Mexico, where Zinnias were considered a wildflower/weed with its small blooms and prolific growth, Spanish colonists called it “mal de ojos” (evil eye) because it was considered so ugly.  However, some researchers say Zinnias were named mal de ojos because they are so bright that they hurt your eyes. Take your pick.

Native to South Texas, Mexico, and Central America, they were named for German botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn who brought specimens back to Europe from Mexico.  In the Language of Flowers, the Victorians said that giving bouquets of mixed colored Zinnias meant “thoughts of absent friends”. Zinnias are in the Aster family and have about 20 species, ranging from simple single layered flowers, to large mum shaped, and small mounded button-shaped.  The most popular genus-species being Zinnia elegans , which comes in a large variety of colors.   

In Brazil, curanderos (traditional healers) place Zinnia leaves on a person’s head to cure madness and use them in a ritual healing bath.  The plant is being studied by scientists for its ability to remove lead from the soil and in another study, usefulness as an antifungal agent

Zinnias are compound flowers, which means the true flowers are small, highly compact, and in the center and they produce the seeds. These small flowers are surrounded by a ring of colored bracts, long, petal-like extensions that provide the attractive display, but do not produce seeds.  The Aster family (formerly the Composite family) is a huge family of plants that include sunflowers, daisies, asters, dahlias, thistles, chrysanthemums, marigolds, cosmos, and dandelions as well as zinnias.

Zinnias are annuals, so they will not come up from the root system the following year, but they do reseed themselves, so the gardener may not need to replant them year after year.  They grow well in rich humus soil that is well- drained. Sun loving, Zinnias need to be planted in full sun about a foot apart and ¼ inch deep if starting with seeds.  Water once a week in dry spells and use an all-purpose fertilizer once a month. Dead- head the blossoms as they fade and the plants will bloom continuously through the summer until the first freeze.

So, far from being mal (bad), a more appropriate descriptor for Zinnias is one of its species names, elegans (elegant) and is deserving of a place in everyone’s garden where its bright colors will dazzle and delight all summer long.

Story by Jolene Renfro 

Crockett Garden Club and Davy Crockett Master Gardeners