Today’s greatest gardening bargain is a packet of zinnia seeds. From it, you’ll get specialty shop style and big box store dependability both at a cut-rate price.
For a galaxy of color from July until frost, zinnias are unsurpassed. Despite drought, disease, and insects that might overpower other plants, they thrive in almost any soil.
And they can be had in a variety of flower forms and sizes, from the 10-inch high Zinnia linearis to the 3-foot display plants with blossoms six inches across.
But it was not always so. Most present-day growers would consider the ancestral type a weed unworthy of a spot in the garden. The story of its development from a single small, unattractive purplish flower is one of innumerable “breaks” in flower size, form, and color.
Were it not for the discovery in the 1850s of the double form, zinnias today would be a little known, perhaps forgotten flower. Their real garden history began, then, just a 170 years ago.
Professor Zinn’s Seeds
Our first record of the original wild zinnia goes back to the year 1757 when bandits overtook a lone bewhiskered man on a hillside in central Mexico. Finding that his bag contained only magenta-purple flower heads, however, the bandits left him, bag in hand, in a cloud of dust.
The man was Johann Gottfried Zinn, a botanist, and professor of medicine at the University of Gottingen, Germany. His seeds were of the unattractive and weedy wild zinnia, which had a cone-like center. This was the forerunner of today’s modern Zinnia elegans.
Until the 1850s, it was rarely grown, but the original purplish color tended to break up into orange, red, and yellow where it was under cultivation. Then, the plant traveled around a bit, and in the course of its travels, the critical “break” occurred.
Birth of the Double Zinnia
In Awadh, India, a gardener spotted a double plant in his garden. He segregated the strain and selected seeds that bred true. Some of this seed was sent to the firm of Vilmorin in Paris in 1858. This flower was exhibited for the first time in 1860.
At the same time, a sample was received from this Indian correspondent by the firm of Messrs. Carter and Hamm in England.
Early in 1861, a natural-size illustration appeared in the London Gardener’s Weekly, showing the flower to be fully double, 2 1/2 inches in diameter, and with florets held in a very tight manner much like today’s ‘Lilliput’ type.
It’s evident that these firms were fully aware that they held an achievement of horticultural importance. As a result, the new double zinnia was widely publicized and rapidly became a common and popular annual.
In 1886, C. Lorenz introduced in Germany a plant named Zinnia elegans robusta grandiflora plenissima, which became commonly known as the Giant Mammoth strain. New colors in flowers, which were four inches or more in diameter, and a more robust plant were developed.
Zinnias in the US
From this point, the history of the zinnia shifted to the United States. Seeds were first produced in the early 1880s in New York, and the strains were developed to high perfection.
In Peter Henderson & Co’s. Handbook of Flowers, published in 1890, zinnia varieties were described as: “truly magnificent, the dingy colors have given way to bright scarlet, clear rose, pure white, orange and canary yellow, etc. and the flowers are perfect in shape, and evenly imbricated like a camellia.”
Seed production, however, was soon transferred to California. Here was a climate that corresponded to the home of the original wild parent. It was warm and dry, and the long season was ideal for maturing seed.
Bodger Seeds, Ltd. of El Monte led in zinnia development there, adding colors to the ‘Giant Mammoth’ type, which has since become known as the ‘California Giants’. These plants now produce 6-inch double flowers.
The Bodger firm also developed the popular Dahlia-flowered zinnia, which is a bit more informal than the ‘California Giants’ type and has a complete color range.
California’s Zinnia Cultivation
During this same period of the early twentieth century, another pioneer plantsman whose name is familiar to every American, Luther Burbank, was patiently selecting and reselecting zinnias.
Although they were one of Burbank’s favorite flowers, we have no record of his ever introducing a zinnia strain. However, the seeds of his zinnias were obtained by W. Atlee Burpee Co. after his death.
They’ve since developed and introduced them as the ‘Super-Giants’. Later selections from this group include the ‘Luther Burbank’, Burpee’s Hybrids, and ‘Flora-dale Scarlet’ types. The latter has extra-large frilly, semi-chrysanthemum-like flowers in colors that include the newer shades of salmon, buff, and several unusual bicolors.
Other California developments include ‘Crown of Gold’, in which each petal is overlaid at the base with golden yellow, the single Scabiosa-Flowered zinnia, Fantasy, with its shaggy and extremely twisted petals, and David Burpee – a refined version of Fantasy with large chrysanthemum-like flowers.
It should be noted that every California seed grower developed its own strains of these types. Many of these are outstanding and distinct, and it seems likely that there will be even more remarkable developments in the future.
Popular Zinnia Cultivars
The giant-flowered zinnia leads in popularity, but several smaller types are beneficial in special locations and for cut flowers. They are all free-flowering and showy in the garden.
The ‘Cut-and-Come-Again’ zinnias have flowers 2-1/2″ inches across, the ‘Lilliput’ or ‘Pompon’ zinnias, 1-1/2″ inches. And the fully double 1″-inch flowers of the ‘Cupid’ or ‘Baby’ zinnias are miniature duplicates of the giant 6″-inch types.
Bright bizarre colors are found in the ‘Mexicana’ and the somewhat larger ‘Navajo’, which is said to have resulted from crossing Zinnia haageana with Zinnia elegans. Finally, Zinnia linearis is a useful edge plant covered with small single orange flowers marked with yellow stripes down each petal.
The zinnia has an extreme tendency to vary, and plantsmen who have worked with it maintain that it is the most difficult of flowers to “fix.”
This is because individual plants prefer to use the pollen of neighboring plants and are largely self-incompatible themselves. Together with the zinnia’s rugged disposition, this tendency has made possible its many improvements and its present popularity.