Colorful zinnias rose above insults

Flowers: Despite early scorn, the vibrant plants contribute much to the modern landscape.

August 22, 1999|By Nancy Brachey | Nancy Brachey,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Once upon a time, close to five centuries ago, someone declared zinnias hard to look at.

"An eyesore," huffed the Spaniards, then working their way around Mexico. They called them "mal de ojos," meaning "unpleasant to the eye."

Despite the insult, zinnias prevailed. The Spaniards may not have thought much of the washed-out native zinnias they encountered, but listen to what people call them now: Dreamland, Persian Carpet, Candy Cane, Border Beauty, Star, Chippendale, just to name a few of the modern types.

Zinnias give color and verve to the landscape.

They prefer open, direct, hot sunshine and are susceptible to a host of leaf diseases that often ruin unattended plants.

Because of modern plant breeding, zinnias have come a long way, though they still won't flourish in the shade. New varieties are more resistant to leaf diseases. And zinnias no longer are simply long-stemmed, red, pink, yellow, white or purple flowers to cut for bouquets, though people still love them for that reason alone.

Many modern types, such as the Peter Pan series, produce short, compact plants -- just right for the edges of flower beds.

A new zinnia named Profusion, which came on the market this year, incorporated all these qualities in two colors, cherry red and sunny orange. It won All-America honors, marking Profusion among the best of the flowers and vegetables introduced for 1999. The winning characteristics for Profusion Cherry and Profusion Orange were their resistance to disease and vigorous growth.

Another type of zinnia that many gardeners embrace -- particularly for its tolerance of heat and humidity and resistance to disease -- is the creeping zinnia. The botanical name is Zinnia angustifolia, but this type of zinnia is better known by the descriptive names of its varieties such as Star Orange, Star Gold and the award-winning Crystal White.

Next spring, when you're contemplating what to plant in your hottest, sunniest spot, remember them.

If the 16th-century Spaniards could see them, they'd think zinnias have come a long way.

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