A RENOWN garden-making friend reminds me of a key lesson his mentor taught him: “There is no such thing as a bad plant, and no room for plant snobbery.” No plant is too common to be a garden star–but in the race for “newest” or “rarest” we sometimes forget that. Well, let’s never forget marigolds and zinnias, Marilyn Barlow and I urge.

These two New World natives have made their way around the globe and back, with a diverse range of beautiful, easy and long-blooming selections to choose from today, including some cherished heirlooms.

Marilyn, founder of Select Seeds, is celebrating 30 years of turning her passion for old-time flowers into a business that today champions not just heirlooms but also the best of the new, including loads of – you guessed it – zinnias and marigolds.

Read along as you listen to the March 27, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below (or at this link).

marigold and zinnias q&a with marilyn barlow

Q. Congratulations on the 30-year anniversary; quite an accomplishment.

A. Thank you.

Q. In your view of the world of flowers, because you have a passion for heirlooms especially, 30 years is probably just a blip in time, so let’s go back even further.

As I mentioned in the intro, both marigolds and zinnias are New World natives-but they have a lot of history since. Which shall we start with and highlight some of their history-zinnias? From their origins south of the border, give us a little timeline.

A. The original zinnia was a dusty lilac color, and it wasn’t very show at all. In fact it wasn’t considered a good garden flower. Then my Victorian-era dictionary of gardening mentions Zinnia pauciflora, which means “few-flowered,” and it was yellow and mentioned around 1753. So it started out as not very attractive, with not many flowers, and small flowers–but once it went to California, and Bodger Seeds got hold of it, then it really sort of blossomed.

Q. So that was much later; we’re starting with a plant that was native in Latin America, yes?

A. Mexico, yes.

Q. So it was native there and then was it by early plant explorers brought back to Europe? How did it find its way to gardening?

A. It was introduced from Mexico in 1796, so it came to the United States after the Revolutionary War. And the double one was introduced around 1862 from the West Indies, and there were other species. Zinnia haageana was introduced from Central America in 1863.

Q. So lots of genetics coming from different spots at different times, and eventually all getting into the breeding that you were talking about before.

A. Right, and California [where Bodger Seeds was located] was the center of the zinnia-breeding efforts.

Q. Bodger Seeds is a famous longtime breeder, and this is one of the things they focused on; I see.

A. They were centered in El Monte, and they introduced the dahlia-flowered zinnia, which is so common today and available in so many different colors.

Q. So pauciflora, like a paucity of flowers, from its beginning as a thing with few and tiny and not very showy flowers, it evolved. Genetics from other species came in, and it evolved with the help of breeders.

Looking through your catalog, there is such a range–let’s talk about that. There are zinnia that look like Scabiosa, ones that look like cactus-y kind of blooms [below left], so many sizes and shapes.

A. The famous dahlia-flowered one that was introduced around 1919 has a mounded form, and the petals are tighter. Something like ‘Purple Prince’ or ‘Polar Bear’ [above right and left, respectively] or ‘Will Rogers’ and good examples of that. The California Giants or Giants of California, have even larger flowers–up to 6 inches–but the flower heads were flatter, and the petals were looser, a looser gathering. Right now we don’t really have too many of those, but we’ll probably be adding them.

The Scabiosa types [below left, Scabiosa type ‘Zinderella Peach’] were added in the 1930s, or that’s when it became most popular, and I’ve seen them in old catalogs.

The Fantasy zinnias were more like the extra-tousled types, and they were around 1935, and the cactus zinnias came from those-those cactus types with all the twisted petals that we see today in all those mixes.

Q. There are zinnias that are small-flowered, and large-flowered, and tall or short as you were saying, and some that are more front-of-the-border edging things.

A. Those are my favorites, actually–the Zinnia angustifolia. We have the ‘Starbright Mix’ and ‘White Star’ [above right]. Those are really more for garden edging, and they are really beautiful. They are also disease-resistant, which makes them extra-nice for sure.

Q. And we can use that, because zinnias get a bad rap sometimes from people who worry about the powdery mildew issues.

A. That’s true, but if you space them far enough apart so they have good air circulation, that really helps. And if you do get powdery mildew one year, then grow them in a different spot the next; that would be a better thing to do.

Q. One really old-to-gardening zinnia that you have is called ‘Red Spider.’

A. That’s a cultivar name for a species, Z. tenuifolia, and that was introduced around 1799 and it’s very beautiful–a beautiful red color, and the narrow petals. It’s not a shy bloomer, so I wouldn’t put it in the category of anything like pauciflora or anything like that. [Laughter.] It’s really delightful; we like that one.

Q. And butterflies like it, yes?

A. We have had tons of butterflies this past summer, and they really go to the single-flowered types [above right, a special single-flowered butterfly mix] of the large double mixes–you don’t get all doubles, but have some single flowers expressed in that mix. They really went to those, and they just loved the red colors and the hot pink colors especially.

Q. It’s interesting what you just said, that in a mix you don’t get all doubles. I’ve always wondered about that, and by doubles we mean more petals. Some look a little fatter and some are domed and mounded and just stuffed with petals. You’re saying the butterflies like the less-double flowers.

A. That’s true, because the stamens there in the center are like a centerpiece to a table of those flat flower petals extending out, and they just sit on those flower petals and drink away.

Q. [Laughter.] The other thing about the zinnias, paging through the catalog and books I have: The range that from that one dusty lavender color, there is now a really wide range of color choices: white, chartreuse, yellow, orange, red, and of course the purple or lilac colors. But then there is also a lot that have this old-fashioned look–like ‘Jazzy Mix’ [below left], which describes it well because it’s very jazzy. They’re warm shades, but each flower is a little different looking.

A. The haageana are always found in the reds, mahoganies and gold colors. So the ‘Jazzy Mix’ is very tightly petaled–like pointed petals all overlapping–and it’s very bright. There will be a few singles in that, too. And then the ‘Chippendale’ is completely different; it’s more of a single flower, but the same type, a haageana. The flower is a little bit bigger, and that one is also very nice. ‘Soleado’ [above right] is another one that sort of combines a warm orangery color with yellow. Those are nice.

Q. Some have a sort of peppermint-candy stick sort of a look. Those are some where I always think, “Now where could I use that?” because I love looking at them and would love it as cut flowers, but am not sure how I’d use it otherwise. I think there are a few like that–red and white.

A. The ‘Pop Art White and Red’ [above right] is particularly candy-cane striped, and I don’t know how you incorporate it except that I guess you just put it in a mixed border and it has that old-fashioned look to it. And ‘Peppermint Stick’ [above left] is another, and that has background colors that are varying from different yellows and pinks.

Q. Lately, is ‘Queen Red Lime’ the one with the unusual color combinations in a single flower?

A. It’s hard for us to keep that one in stock, even; it’s that old rose and limey-green combination that’s really beautiful.

Q. It’s almost like if you’re looking down into the depth of the flower you are seeing those rosy shades inside these greenish outer bits; the flowers are deep-looking. And then the ‘Raspberry Limeade’ [above right] is a bit like that as well–greenish and raspberry.

A. I think it was selected from the ‘Queen Red Lime,’ [above left] actually, because the ‘Queen Red Lime’ is a mixture of the different colors of green and mauvey-pink.

Q. The Scabiosa-flowered one, ‘Zinderella Peach’–I wouldn’t have even necessarily known it was a zinnia. Describe that.

A. It creates a big puff in the center. It has an outer row of petals, and the interior is just layer upon layer of smaller petals including the stamens in the center. It’s just so cute. [Laughter.]

Q. It is, and you wouldn’t know it was a zinnia; it’s a novelty almost.

Where did the marigolds get their origins?

A. The marigolds are from South America–some from Peru, or Argentina, and some from Mexico. They’re the ones that traveled all around, and the common name African marigold or French marigold refers to these different varieties of these flowers.

Q. It’s funny because you would think if it says African marigold [above right] or French marigold that it’s maybe native to there, but that’s not the case, is it?

A. No, the French marigold came from Mexico and went over to Spain, and then to France, and that was in the 1500s–1573, I think, for the French marigold. The African marigold went in the mid-1500s to Spain again, and then North Africa, and it was practically naturalized in North Africa, so when it was collected there they just assumed it was a wildflower of North Africa.

Q. These represent different species–different genetics–that they were working with. The genus is Tagetes, with Tagetes patula being the French one, and the species T. erecta–upright–being the African or tall ones. And then I love the ones that we maybe know as the Signet types or Gem Series, the T. tenuifolia [above left].

A. Those are my favorite also. I tend to like the smaller types, the more graceful and mounding ones. Some of the African marigolds are very shrubby, and have a commanding presence. The other ones can just sort of mingle in, especially near the front of the border, and they always look great.

Q. Do you use any in pots at all?

A. The Signet ones especially.

Q. One thing you remember after you’ve met marigolds is that they have this very distinctive scent. [Laughter.]

A. I like all that kind of stuff–earthy scents and pungent scents. We do have one, the sweet-scented Mexican marigold or Tagetes lucida, commonly called ‘Sweet Mace’ [above] and that has an anise scent to it.

Q. Its leaves look different in the pictures–is it different-looking?

A. Its flowers aren’t very big and they are more singles or clusters of smaller flowers. The foliage is the main attraction, but does weave in with others.

Q. The leaves look like they are a little shiny.

A. Oh, yes; that’s true–lucida [for bright or shining in Latin].

Q. Some have mahogany colors and striping, like the ‘Harlequin’ ones.

A. Those are nice. They get much bigger, and are quite tall. The striping really develops more toward the latter part of the summer, so you get a better flower show the end of August, September and so forth before frost, I think. They come into their own a little bit later, the ‘Harlequin.’ Sometimes you’ll say, “That flower is not striped at all; that’s all yellow.” But it does develop the striping later in the season, as the weather gets cooler.

Q. Do you remember the first marigold and zinnia that you chased down from the vintage catalogs to list in Select Seeds when you were getting started?

A. Well, there is one that I don’t have right now…[laughter].

Q. {Laughter.] Uh-oh, the one that got away.

A. I kind of forgot about it. It’s the Tagetes filifolia, called ‘Irish Lace.’ It’s really grown for the foliage, and probably why it got lost in the shuffle along the way. It doesn’t have showy flowers at all, but the foliage is really finely divided and it has a nice scent. So that’s one that got away from me and I am going to track down again.

Q. Is it big or small?

A. It’s pretty small.

Q. What about zinnias–do you remember any of the early ones you tracked down?

A. I really like the angustifolias. The ‘Starbright Mix,’ a modern name for the old type. And the peruviana, which I also don’t have currently, was one that was very interesting. The red one was a soft brick red, and it was very velvety looking. We hope to get some more of that.

Q. The hunt is always on, right? [Laughter.]

A. And we just got a mix of just single zinnias for butterflies. We’re happy about that–and it’s a nice combination of colors, but all singles, so it will really bring in the butterflies.

Q. My grandmother grew both marigolds and zinnias; she was a Victorian-era woman and she grew them in these unabashed beds full of them. It wasn’t sophisticated or fancy, but it was very bold. Both plants are popular in cutting gardens, because they are prolific, but do you combine them?

These are both easy annuals to grow, but how do you use them there at the nursery?

A. We tend to grow things in rows, I have to say, especially if we’re growing things for seed. But apart from that, we don’t have any strict rules for zinnias and marigolds, I’m afraid. [Laughter.] We just mix them up, and as long as we keep the shorter ones from being overshadowed from the large, shrubby ones, we feel we have success.

Q. So anything goes.

A. I think so; like you said, they’re old-fashioned, relaxed, cottage-gardeny kind of flowers. I think they used to have rules way back in the Victorian era when they put everything out in little tiny mounds and patterns. But I think nowadays it’s whatever colors and forms you like, just go for it.

(More design ideas: Old-timey Amaranthus tricolor, celosia, snow on the mountain, or Agastache, would look good with them, and for the Signet marigolds, nasturtiums, basil, and more at the edge of the veggie garden would be good combinations.)

Q. As I said they are very easy–do you start them indoors from seed? I’ve even direct-sown them.

A. We direct-sow. The marigolds you might benefit from starting them indoors for four to six weeks, but definitely the zinnias we just start outdoors. For me, I enjoy that more than starting them indoors. I might have to wait a little bit longer for flowers, but not significantly more time to wait till they start to bloom. So generally we just sow directly outdoors.

Q. With some annuals, you cut them back at a certain point later in the season, but with these I don’t think you need to.

A. We don’t; we use a lot of twiggy brush to underpin the planting, maybe a foot or a foot and a half tall. We put them on a little support underneath, so that the taller ones–the ‘Harlequin’ [above left] and the ‘Burning Embers’ [above right] and the ‘Cinnabar’ for the marigolds–won’t keel over under a heavy rain, for instance. So we just give it a little of what we call underpinning.

Sometimes the Signet marigolds can keep going and keep going and all of a sudden they can break open in the center.

Q. Yes.

A. That could happen, especially again with rain. So maybe a little bit of support is good for those, or a light shearing.

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 27, 2017 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.

(Photographs from
Select Seeds, used with permission. Disclosure: My longtime friends at Select Seeds, where I have shopped almost since it was founded, are occasional sponsors of A Way to Garden, running seasonal ads.)

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