a diversity of marigolds and zinnias old and new, with marilyn barlow

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 (a longtime friend and occasional sponsor on A Way to Garden) celebrated 30 years in 2017 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, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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.

more from marilyn barlow

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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. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


(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.)

  1. Lindy says:

    Timely article for me as I just fixed up a garden spot to sow flower seeds yesterday.
    Thank you for this and for everything that you do, Margaret!

    1. margaret says:

      You are welcome, Lindy. Don’t they make you feel optimistic and happy, all those sunny faces of these easy flowers?

  2. Lauren B. says:

    Last Spring while direct sowing marigold and zinnia seeds in spaces in the veggie garden, (because some varmint eats ’em unless they are fenced in) I thought to myself, “I have been doing this now for 50 years.” When I was 9 years old we were living in a dark apartment the South Bronx and my brother and I found out about the NYBG Gardencraft Program where we grew vegetables and those 2 great flowers. We are each SUPER avid gardeners to this day and always include marigolds and zinnias! ❤

  3. Shana Byrne says:

    Thank you Margaret, interesting for me to know about the history of these two flowers.
    I use the tall zinnias in my vegi garden to stand out and create height along with sunflowers.
    I also want to let you know, as on your recommendation, I planted old sprouting onions in my garden last year. They bloomed for many weeks – I loved how they looked sticking out between tomatoes and herbs.
    Thanks again for your wonderful website, I spend many hours reading old interviews and some of the books you have mentioned. It has been a long wet winter here in northern CA.

  4. JimB says:

    While at least some marigolds have always been a staple in my garden, I grew zinnias irregularly until 2010 when I lost a brother to cancer. Zinnias were his favorite flower and in honor of his memory I now grow lots each year and bring them in for vases around the house but particularly on the bathroom countertop where, of course, I see them frequently! I like some varieties better than others but a favorite for me is Burpee Seeds Exquisite.

  5. E Knisely says:

    Thank you! I read this article with great passion for knowing more about my favorite annual, the zinnias. I wonder whether you could supply a photo of the underpinning technique Marilyn describes… using twiggy brush in the garden sounds appealing and I’d love to know what that looks like.

      1. Jennie says:

        I was wondering the same thing: I’m unclear whether the “twiggy brush” is another plant growing under the zinnias, or just some material you place on top of the soil?

  6. Debbie green says:

    I live in Connecticut, southeastern to be exact. Along the shoreline, although I am in the woods not directly on the water.
    When is a good time to sow Zinnia seeds outside?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Debbie. Once the soil is warm and not so sodden as now, and the weather has stabilized; some gardeners like to wait till the frost danger passes…and though I don’t know exactly where you are located, that’s probably in the first week of May where you are.

  7. Melissa says:

    I grow marigolds to keep aphids away. A few years ago I planted butterfly weed to attract monarch butterflies and was horrified to see how quickly they were covered in aphids. When I surrounded the plants with French marigolds, I found that my aphid problems were completely cured without any insecticide, plus the cheerful marigolds attracted a number of smaller butterflies.

    1. Suzanne K says:

      Thanks for this. I have the same problem with those nasty orange aphids on my milkweed plants too. I am going to try interplanting marigolds this year.

  8. Jean Yowpa says:

    I grow marigolds every year in my flower gardens, pots and also in my vegetable gardens and absolutely love the look of them and their scents…

  9. JessB says:

    These are two of my main flowers in the veggie garden! The Marigolds self-sow for the most part though I do grab old seed heads off and sprinkle where I feel a corner could use a pick-me-up. I let my daughters sow the zinnias so they are more than prolific. Love seeing them all season long.

  10. Tibs says:

    Marigolds were first thing i ever grew. Collected the seeds planted in a pot and grew it all winter. By march id have a spindly little flower ln my bedroom. I’d also root english ivy and begonias in water.

  11. Rachel says:

    Thanks for a great article!
    “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.” On Point.
    I will always remember marigolds and zinnias.:)

  12. Laura Thorne says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I’ve tried the Zinderella series zinnias for the past two summers, and each time I rarely get the Scabiosa, fluffy looking flowers – instead they end up just as singles (still cute, though!). Any pointers?

    1. margaret says:

      I just took a spin through the catalogs and see that the descriptions now clarify that they are not all scabiosa-like flwowers. E.g., this one at Johnny’s saying 20 percent single flowers. I presume the variety will get better with careful selection over time but ….

  13. Sharon says:

    Thank you. I am new to this site. I love zinnias. What is under pinning?
    I think rabbits ate my marigolds. Just the stem was left
    Any ideas?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Sharon. We used to call the underpinning that Marilyn referred to things like “brushing up” a planting or (with peas) just “pea brush” — gathering twiggy branches (not giant ones) and inserting them in a bed (or row of peas) with the twiggy ends up to make a sort of natural support or trellis.
      As far as your marigolds, if it’s rabbits they will probably eat something else, too (or instead) — my feeling about rabbits is that they are very hard to manage in a garden and are best trapped by a licensed nuisance wildlife control person. More about rabbits in this other story.

  14. Scott Kunst says:

    I just ordered some Harlequin marigolds, zinnias, and other exciting old annuals from Select Seeds, and I’m always interested in the history of flowers. I tend to go for the taller varieties because I’m planting them in front of dahlias and cannas, and I want to cut them, and I guess I like big showy things. Thanks!

  15. Laura says:

    I planted marigolds from last year seeds and I ended up with a plant that is 2’ high and spindly , one that short and compact and one where only one layer of petals opened.
    I’m not sure what’s going on with them. It’s been a off year for my green thumb.
    Can anyone tell me why?

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