Bill Pitts is a freelance writer who gardens in DeLand.

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Passalong Plants
by Bill Pitts    

Clockwise: Cosmos bipinnatus is a sporadic reseeder in my garden, while its orange-yellow cousin C. sulphureus is more aggressive. • Shirley poppies are easy to grow and will volunteer, but for the best show, sow more seeds every fall. • Bishop’s flower (Ammi majus) is an annual cousin of Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota).

Walk into nearly any garden center and take a look at the French marigolds (Tagetes patula). You will see dwarf plants with large, very double blooms, almost always in plain orange or yellow. I’ve bought them when I needed quick and familiar color. That said, there is much more to the French marigold.

Grow some heirloom varieties and you will discover just how unusual and beautiful these supposedly common flowers can be. There are marigolds that become sprawling 4-foot shrubs, marigolds that look like idealized wildflowers, and others that defy comparison. There are marigolds with stripes, splashes, daubs, or gilded edges. The colors range from clear buttery yellow to dark velvety maroon, with many shades of brick, burnt orange, and gold between. There are even marigolds with leaves that don’t smell like marigolds. Unlike the usual hybrids, these nearly forgotten varieties attract lots of beneficial insects to the garden. Their extensive root systems can even reduce root knot-nematodes.

French marigolds are only the beginning. There is a whole universe of heirloom flowering annuals out there. Most of them thrive in Florida, and many of them are truly extraordinary.

I have a garden buddy that does not think much of heirlooms. He prefers the cutting-edge hybrids offered by the big seed sellers. So I was pleased when he paused to admire an old Browallia americana variety in my garden. He did not recognize the sprays of blue flowers because they were so airy and delicate compared to the compact hybrid browallias usually seen in garden centers. He asked me how I grew them, and I got to tell him they spring up in the shady spots every year, all on their own.

Clockwise: This old variety of Ageratum, said to be grown by Thomas Jefferson, has adapted to my garden, becoming more vigorous every year. • Open-pollinated zinnias, like those of Sunset Mix by Peace Seeds, seem more vigorous than hybrids in my garden. • Many annual heirlooms, such as this toadflax, can be grown as wildflower lawns.

Many heirloom annuals will reseed, though not all are as dependable as browallia. If I sow Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas), toadflax (Linaria maroccana), and catchfly (Silene armeria), all three will continue to pop up here and there in the garden for several years afterward. At some point they will disappear completely and I will start over, either with seed I have saved or a new pack.

Other heirloom annuals are true wildflowers that will thrive, year after year, with next to no help. Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella) and common tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii) – both old Florida garden favorites – are native to much of the state. Some wildflowers, such as annual phlox (P. drummondii) and Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) are naturalized. A few aggressive exotics, such as cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit), can become weedy if you don’t keep them in check, but are worth the danger.

Order a packet of hybrid pansy seeds (Viola x wittrockiana) and you will likely spend four or five dollars for 25 seeds. You pay a lot for a little because these seeds have been bred under carefully controlled conditions and trademarked. Contrast this with Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor), an old cottage garden favorite. You will typically spend only two to three dollars for a packet of hundreds or even thousands of Johnny-jump-up seeds. With hybrid pansies, you’ll end up with a couple of dozen bedding plants at best. With the Johnny-jump-ups you can sow an entire cool-season “lawn.” (It’s even prettier if you mix them with a pack of sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima). While the hybrid pansies will be predictable, resembling those in the catalog, the heirlooms will have more variation. Some plants will stretch upright. Others sprawl. The purples and yellows will be intense in one, pastel in another. A few will be pale clear blue, nearly white. Even the scents vary. You could try culling out weak or unusually vigorous seedlings, in hopes of making them more alike, but why bother? With heirloom flowers, surprises are part of the fun.

Clockwise: This sunflower, bred by Peace Seeds, is the result of natural crosses between many old varieties of Helianthus annuus as well as some wild species. • Although heirloom annuals can be used in formal mass plantings, many, such as this poppy and Florida-adapted phlox, blend especially well in meadows and cottage gardens. • Toadflax, like many heirloom annuals, attracts beneficial insects to the garden.

This variability allows heirlooms to adapt to a site – and to a gardener. If you save seeds from your favorite open-pollinated zinnias (Z. elegans), for example, many of the plants that grow from these seeds will have the traits you admired in their parents. Save seeds from the second generation, and these traits will often become more pronounced in the third. If you keep this up a decade or two, you will eventually develop a zinnia especially adapted not only to your garden, but to your tastes. The zinnia will become an expression of you.

There is much more to the French marigold than the orange and yellow pom-poms found in most garden centers.

For me, this is part of the magic of gardening, but I still don’t save my zinnia seeds. To select truly the best zinnias would mean growing a lot of zinnias to choose from – more zinnias than I have the space for. Instead, I grow a few examples of the prettiest heirloom zinnia varieties I can buy. My favorite, far and away, is Sunset Mix from Peace Seeds. Dr. Alan Kapuler created this mix by planting many old zinnia varieties in his garden, allowing them to cross naturally, and collecting the seeds from the best plants over decades. These zinnias are not only beautiful, but far more vigorous than any other zinnias I have ever grown, including the hybrids.

With heirloom annuals that dependably self-sow, there is also a process of selection going on, but it is Mother Nature who does the choosing, not me. The gaillardia and coreopsis come back stronger – and in greater numbers – each spring because they are the offspring of plants that did best in my garden the previous year. I expect them to be better still in the future. You can speed up this process by starting with seeds from strains already adapted to Florida, such as those offered by the Florida Wildflowers Growers Cooperative.

As much as I love heirloom annual flowers, sometimes one will disappoint me. Peruvian zinnias (Z. peruviana) are always spindly in my garden. When I allow balsam impatiens (I. balsamina) to self-sow, the resulting plants have washed-out blooms. I have yet to grow an heirloom moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora) I am satisfied with. But these exceptions are few. Usually when I go to an heirloom variety, I never look back.

Not all heirloom annuals are dainty. Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) will grow 6 feet tall and nearly as wide.

Obtaining quality seeds can be a challenge. The flower sections of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Baker Creek Heirlooms are a good place to start. For difficult-to-find seeds – like the browallia – try J.L. Hudson. For truly outstanding French marigolds, sunflowers, and zinnias, I turn to Peace Seeds.

Some of the best sources for heirloom annuals are fellow gardeners who share or swap seeds. If you are lucky enough to be passed a few seeds “over the fence,” grow them, and keep passing them along.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Bill Pitts.


Posted: 10/05/18   RSS | Print


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