When the Spanish first saw zinnias growing in Mexico they found the flower so unattractive that they called it mal de ojos, or “sickness of the eye.” Five centuries later the zinnia, thanks to changes and improvements in flower colours and shape, plant size and disease resistance, is a popular annual found in flower beds wherever gardens are grown. In fact, the National Gardening Bureau has designated 2011 as The Year of the Zinnia!
There are more than a dozen species of zinnias, but just three are commonly grown in gardens. Zinnia elegans and Zinnia linearis have been responsible for many varieties over the years, particularly since breeders figured out how to cross the two species. Zinnia haageana, while lesser known, offers bi-coloured flowers, which have made their way through breeding into several varieties.
Diversity is one of the many reasons why zinnias are so popular. There are blooms that look like dahlia flowers and single blooms that resemble chrysanthemums. Double forms have several shapes, with so many rows of petals the centers are hidden. Heights range from nearly a metre tall to a few centimeters.
And then there are the colours. Zinnias can be found in almost every shade except blue; yellow, orange, cherry, pink, purple, scarlet and white. “Peppermint Stick” has scarlet, pink, purple and orange double blooms, each with a darker splash throughout. ‘Envy’ is nearly a chartreuse green.
The taller types make fantastic cut flowers, lasting for well over a week in a vase. If you cut the stem above a pair of leaves two new stems with flowers buds will quickly take their place, assuring a constant supply of fresh flowers right until autumn frost.
The cross-breeding I mentioned earlier has increased the popularity of the zinnia. When the “Profusion” series was introduced in 1999 it brought the best properties of both species together in a compact, free-flowering plant that was heat and humidity tolerant, disease resistant and easy to maintain, requiring no deadheading.
The recent introduction of the “Zahara” series, with larger blooms than “Profusion” has given us even more choice. If you recall this zinnia was featured in public gardens in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, so we can be assured of its heat tolerance.
You can easily grow zinnias from seed, starting them indoors about four to six weeks before the last frost date, or direct sowing them into the garden around mid-May, something I’ve had good success with. Zinnias and marigolds are perfect annuals for introducing children to gardening. The seeds are big enough for them to handle, they germinate quickly and they’re so colourful and easy to grow.
If you’ve got a spot in the garden where it’s hot, the soil isn’t all that great and you’d love to see a splash of colour that you don’t have to spend much time fussing over, the zinnia is the perfect annual. With names like Fruit Smoothie, California Giant, Pinwheel, Lilliput, Thumbelina, Giant Cactus and Polar Bear browsing through the racks in the garden centre for zinnia seed packets will be only the first delight you’ll experience in this, the year of the zinnia.

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