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Add zip to your garden with zinnias

By By Steve Strong / area horticulture extension agent
June 18, 2003
The noble zinnia has come a long way since the days when early Spanish explorers in Mexico first described the plant as "mal de ojos" or "sickness of the eye."
Dr. Johann Gottfried Zinn introduced his namesake to Europe in the 18th century, but it wasn't until the 1920s that plant breeders in North America began to develop the home garden varieties we see today.
Zinnias have long been a favorite choice of southern gardeners wanting to add sunny colors to planting beds and cut flower arrangements.
Sporting daisy-like flowers in nearly every color combination except blue, zinnias are both tough and versatile, and are now offered in a range of sizes and forms to suit your garden needs.
The original garden standard, Zinnia elegans, is the taller 3-foot specie that everyone is most familiar with, passed along for generations by seed from one garden to the next as "Old Maids."
While more than a dozen species are native to North and South America, plant breeders have narrowed the field down to three main groups grown for landscape use.
Two species recently gaining popularity are Z. angustifolia and Z. linearis. They offer more compact growth habits as short as 6 to 12 inches with huge numbers of blooms that blanket the foliage. Another added bonus is better resistance to mildew and other diseases when compared to the older varieties of Z. elegans.
The group of Z. angustifolia varieties has touted several All America Selection winners in the last two decades, including Crystal White and the newest Profusion series. Both Profusion Cherry and Orange are excellent choices for their eye-catching colors, and are promoted as the lowest maintenance zinnias (no deadheading of spent flowers required).
My personal favorite is Z. linearis, known as narrow-leaf zinnia, and is probably the most heat- and drought-tolerant of the bunch.
The bright orange variety appears to be the toughest of all, producing zillions of button-sized flowers throughout the summer, and the daisy-yellow and white forms perform nearly as well with little care from May through October.
Zinnias are easily started from seed indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date, and can be directly garden sown in our area around the last week of April.
Seeds should be sown between 1/4- and 1/2-inch deep depending on the size of the seed (deeper for larger ones), and seeds from older heirloom varieties can be collected before frost from dead flower heads to plant again next year.
The taller forms are usually planted toward the back of flowerbeds to avoid a gangly appearance, since most of the blooms are produced on top of the plants. Zinnia blooms make great cut flowers, lasting a week or longer in a vase.
A tip to extending shelf life of cut flowers is to cut them from the plant first with a stem several inches longer than you need.
Fill the kitchen sink with warm water, hold the stems below the water surface, and make a new angled cut while holding the stems underwater this trick restarts the water flow to the blooms that was interrupted when they were removed from the mother plant.
For more information on zinnias and other great Mississippi garden plants, check out the Mississippi State University Extension Service Web site at www.msucares.com. The local number to call is 482-9764, where you can also get more information about the Meridian Area Farmers Market, open Monday through Saturday mornings at the Union Station train depot.

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