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Zinnias on My Mind

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© Baker Creek Seed Co.

Post by William Woys Weaver

Have you received the new 2013 Baker Creek catalog? Let me tell you, it’s a beauty! I was delighted to see a fulsome bright freshly picked bouquet of zinnias on the cover because flowers take us into another important chapter of the heirloom seed story. Fed up with plastic-looking F1 hybrids from my local garden shop, I turned many years ago to growing the old-fashioned sorts of flowers I remember from my grandfather’s remarkable garden in West Chester, Pennsylvania. My grandfather was also a beekeeper, and that meant he chose his flowers carefully to suit his queens. Planting what the pollinators loved best was doubtless one of the secrets of his successful seed saving activities because once lured into the garden, the honey wasps, the butterflies, all those important wild pollinators also took advantage of the vegetables in bloom. Planting flowers was just his way of getting our allies in Nature to work for us. This brings me to the zinnias.


Zinnias were introduced from Mexico by Philadelphia seedsman David Landreth, and while they were a sensation in the late 1790s, the zinnias of that era were nothing like the showy ones now available from Baker Creek. The Persian Carpet zinnias come historically close, even though they are a 1950s creation, mainly because they are small and mostly single petalled like the old-time zinnias of the 1790s. A few years ago I managed to get hold of seed for wild zinnias, and I could see the close relationship to the Persian Carpets, except that the range of colors was limited and the plants had a tall, rangy habit of growth. Their height made them ideal for sticking in among tomatoes, carrots, and even peppers; the butterflies just came flocking in!


That is just one more of the many nice things about zinnias: they have admiring friends in butterflies, so you really get two for one--showy flowers and showy insects to dance from one blossom to the next all summer long. As a kid, I learned a lot about butterflies just by studying the ones that visited my grandfather’s zinnias. There are big yellow tiger swallow tails, black swallow tails, and if one is really lucky, the super-quick one called zebra swallow tail, which is black and white and can outpace most birds when in flight. Then there are the little ones like the American hair streak, which is really small, but you can’t miss it for its intense blue color. The beauty of my grandfather’s zinnia patch was also a study in sharing because no matter how many butterflies showed up to work the flowers, none of them ever fought over the food. They sipped their nectar side by side. Those party-colored zinnias, which now come in hundreds of different shapes and colors, were not just a lesson in symbiotic gardening; they were also a parable about sharing.


William Woys Weaver is a culinary historian living in Devon, Pennsylvania, were he maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection consisting of some 4000 varieties of food plants.


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