(Edited from news article)
Old maids is an old name for one of our easiest to grow-from-seed warm season annuals. Most people call them zinnias now. Whichever common name you use, there are around 20 species of wild zinnias, which are members of the Asteraceae family. Native to the American southwest, Mexico, and Central America, these sun-loving, season long bloomers can tolerate the hot and dry weather.
It’s unclear how the name old maids became associated with zinnias. The best assumption is that unmarried women over a certain age commonly planted them in their gardens. It’s easy to see why too. They readily germinate from seeds planted in warm soil and quickly grow into hardy plants that continuously bloom until frost. Did I mention they also attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds along with making great cut flowers? That’s a hardworking landscape annual in my book.
Like the story of the sunflower, zinnias today look a little different from their native ancestors. Since their introduction to Europe by Spanish explorers, botanist and plant breeders have introduced new colors and flower shapes, increased the flower size, and developed plants heights ranging from 6 inches to 4 feet.
Zinnias are one of the easiest flowers to grow for new gardeners. Most people sow seeds in the spring, but now is a great time to plant seeds for colorful blooms from late August until the first frost. Zinnias are available in an array of colors that will compliment any garden. They also make great companion plants to those sunflower seeds that I know you planted after reading last week’s article.
Profusion and Zahara are two of the newer hybrid varieties developed with improved disease resistance and extended bloom time. Older varieties can have issues with powdery mildew along with fungal and/or bacterial leaf spot. I haven’t noticed any disease issues on the ones at home this summer. This is probably due to the dryer weather we’ve been experiencing. Profusion and Zahara varieties produce smaller flowers than cut flower types and grow to heights around 14-18 inches.
Plant zinnia seeds 9-12 inches apart in well-drained soil and full sun. Proper spacing will improve airflow and help lessen issues with powdery mildew. Keep soil moist while seeds are germinating, but not wet. Zinnias are drought tolerant plants. When irrigation is necessary, avoid overhead watering to minimize leaf wetness which can lead to foliar diseases.
Pinching off new growth from seedlings after the 2nd or 3rd set of true leaves emerge will encourage branching and longer stems on cut flower varieties. Deadheading (removing spent blooms) promotes more flowering as well. However, it is not necessary for continual flowering on Profusion and Zahara varieties.
When cutting zinnias for flower arrangements, cut only fully opened flowers early in the morning. Have a pail of water to put cut stems in immediately. Unopened flowers will not continue to open once cut and brought indoors. Be careful to not crush the hollow stems. Cut stems right above a set of leaves to encourage new growth and flowering. Remove all but the top leaves and recut stems on a 45-degree angle before placing in a vase. Change water and recut the stems every few days to lengthen the life span of the bouquet.
Old maids, zinnia, whichever name you use, these tried-and-true annuals have brought color to our gardens for centuries. Plant seeds now through mid-August. Best of all, you don’t have to be an old maid or have a green thumb to grow them.