Floridata Article

Jewels of Summer

A gulf fritillary sips from a matching zinnia. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
A gulf fritillary sips from a matching zinnia.

Just when summer's the hottest and other flowers in your butterfly garden might be suffering, zinnias, Mexican natives, provide brilliant color in your landscape. Zinnias fill the gap between spring and fall flowers.

Zinnia's Background

Zinnias are members of the daisy family (Asteraceae) and there are several species, but most are sold as Zinnia elegans even though some think that their correct botanical name is now Z. violacea. Their flowers are arranged in heads with fertile central disc florets and outside rings of infertile ray florets that serve as petals to attract pollinators. In my photo of the orange zinnia, you can see the disc florets that are blooming, so the butterfly has many sipping places. Each day a new ring of florets open just inside yesterday's flowers.

When the Spanish first saw the zinnia in Mexico, they called it mal de ojos, or "sickness of the eye"! Some people have interpreted this to mean that the flowers were ugly, while others translate the Spanish as "hard on the eyes," which implies that the colors are so bright that you have to squint. I favor the second explanation.

This zinnia bouquet shows the variety of flowers. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
This zinnia bouquet shows the wide variety of flowers.

Once the zinnia was brought to Europe, Linnaeus named it for Dr. Johann Gottfried Zinn, both a medical doctor and a professor of botany. Zinn wrote the first description of the zinnia and also wrote a detailed description of the human eye in 1765 that is still used today.

European plant breeders started cultivating the zinnia, carefully selecting for the best traits. Some of their cultivars were brought to the US in the late 1800s. Those early zinnias may have looked like the white zinnia in my bouquet in the photo with just a single row of ray florets. The zinnias with double, triple, or quadruple the number of ray florets were not developed until later.

The Zinnia Becomes Popular

The real start of the zinnia's popularity began in the 1920s when Bodger Seeds Ltd. in California introduced a dahlia-flowered zinnia. John Bodger discovered a natural mutation in a field of zinnias he was growing and within the next few years selected the large, flat-flowered zinnias. These looked like the coral colored zinnia at the bottom of my bouquet.

This zinnia has three leaves instead of two. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
This zinnia has three leaves instead of two. It is spontaneous changes like this that cause plant breeders to take note.
Not that anyone would care whether there were 2 opposing leaves or 3, but this serves as an example of what could happen.

In the 1950s Ferry Morse Seed Company introduced the first known tetraploid zinnia, called "State Fair". Tetraploids have four sets of chromosomes, rather than the usual two and as a result, produce larger flowers, more ray florets, stronger stems, vigorous growth, and increased disease resistance. Last year one of my zinnias had three (!) leaves whorled around the stem instead of the normal pattern of two opposite leaves. You can see this in my photo. The flowers on this plant had many more petals, I mean ray florets, than all the others in that batch of plants. Had I been a breeder, this would have provided a great opportunity for me. I did save some of the seed and it's now mixed in with this year's corp. To save seed, let the flowers dry out on the plant and then harvest the whole flower head. Gently break the flower head and you should be able to extract the flat seeds from the center. Store in a cool dry place. I store my seeds in a sealed plastic container in the refrigerator.

Last year my zinnias did so well that I bought more seed this year. I bought a full ounce from American Meadows and this batch has produced much more variety in both color and form. I did not plant the whole ounce; the rest is in the refrigerator awaiting next spring. The germination rate will be lower the second year, but I'll supplement these with my collected seed. I've had more than enough for frequent bouquets from my cutting garden and to populate several meadow areas. The meadows have been butterfly havens through this hot, fairly dry summer.

When you cut the flowers for bouquets, cut the stem to just above the leaf crotch where new shoots are growing. This way you'll have two flowers for every one you cut. Remove the leaves from the stems of your cut flowers. The leaves get slimy when under water and the whole bouquet deteriorates more rapidly when that happens.

You may want to cut back or stake the taller varieties so they don't lean too much. The standard size grows to four or five feet here in Florida. There are several dwarf cultivars that work better for borders or containers. Some seed companies offer uniform color and flowers, but I prefer the mixture with a good variety. In one meadow area all of the zinnias are pink. I have no idea how this happened, because elsewhere the colors include white, orange, magenta, red, coral, pale yellow, as well as pink.

A long tailed skipper flits amongst the zinnias. Photo by Ginny Stibolt.
A long tailed skipper flits amongst the zinnias.

Butterflies: those Other Jewels of Summer

Zinnias are a great addition to your butterfly gardens. If you deadhead the old flowers and keep them trimmed back, the flowering period is long, from early May to late fall. The fall bloomers such as goldenrod will then take the lead role in your butterfly gardens.

Butterflies favor plants like zinnias for their nectar sources because the flower head, or inflorescence, provides a good landing platform and many sources of nectar. Plant zinnias in large groupings because butterflies are nearsighted and the mass of color will draw them in. My hummingbirds also work the zinnias.

Plan for a zinnia garden next year. The resulting the eye-popping colors of both the flowers and the butterflies will be your jewels of summer.


- American Meadows offers mixed wildflower seeds, but I like more control of individual species such as zinnias: www.americanmeadows.com
- Harris Seeds has a mix of "Cut & Come Again Zinnias: http://gardeners.harrisseeds.com
- Burpee offers both mixed and single color zinnias. They have just about every other type of seed as well: www.burpee.com
- UF Extension service article on zinnias: http://hendry.ifas.ufl.edu/HCHortNews_Zinnia.htm

Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com

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