#98 Zinnia





Zinnia in my Garden

Members of the daisy family Asteraceae, zinnias originated in the New World with a range centered in Mexico but extending from the southwestern U.S. down to Argentina.  They are composite flowers, from one and a half to nearly three feet high, made up of single ray petals attached to a seed, arranged around a coned-shaped core of smaller, fertile disk flowers, often dusted with orange or yellow pollen (Grissell x).  In its native type, Zinnia elegans, the original source of most modern zinnias, is a dark pink in color with a single row of ray petals, the number of which per flower varies considerably as disk flowers are known to spontaneously evolve into ray flowers (Grissell 119). This kind of genetic drift, plus a tendency to what Eric Grissell, author of the definitive history of zinnias, calls “wanton interbreeding,” has allowed extensive hybridization among the twenty or so known species producing a variety of double forms, some rounded into large globes or shrunk into pompoms (Grissell x, Hogan 1497). Known especially for their wide range of colors -- from white and yellow and orange through pinks and magenta and reds to various shades of purple (modern varieties even include a vivid lime green) -- and upright stance, they add quite a show of color in the late summer and early autumn garden and are known for their longevity as cut flowers. Since zinnia seed quickly reverts to type, most gardeners buy new seed every year.



Although there are numerous, mainly mythic accounts of the zinnia’s importance to the Aztecs and romantic stories of its discovery by Spanish explorers, Eric Grissell’s meticulously assiduous historical research has revealed that most of the little that has been written on the flower is “highly repetitive, and verging at best on the dubious or at worse on the ignominious” with “some information repeated so often as to becomes legend rather than fact” (xii). While marigolds and dahlias were documented in indigenous and colonial records in the Americas, there is little written evidence from this period about zinnias, for which no indigenous name has been determined (Grissell 15, 35). Indeed, partially because of their lack of medicinal or cosmetic uses, Grissell maintains that “Zinnias have not been reliably documented in either the sixteenth or seventeen century, and no unquestionable image has been found until the middle of the eighteenth century” (45). The first zinnia to reach Europe was the smaller, yellow Peruvian zinnia, which Linnaeus described in 1753, the same year that seed was sent by its French collector Hussieu to the Chelsea Physic Garden (Grissell 49). It was not until after extensive horticultural collecting expeditions launched by the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid that the first Z. elegans appeared in England in 1796, some 40 years later (Grissell 57). 


During the next fifty years or so, European breeders developed single-flowered zinnias in a variety of colors from white to yellow, orange, scarlet and dark purple (Grissell 64). But by 1860, a new, double-flowered variety, apparently a sport imported from Bengal in India, began to transform the flower into a popular sensation (Grissell 78). German breeders soon produced a double hybrid with orange petals tipped in scarlet, the beginning of bi-colored forms (Grissell 92).  Grissell designates 1869-1900 as the “golden age of zinnias” (80) when more “adventurous” experiments in hybridization rapidly expanded the offerings of seed companies across Europe and the United States, producing “Dahlia-flowered” zinnias and “Giant mammoths” as well as miniature varieties (90).


Because zinnias arrived so late in Europe, relatively speaking, there are few folkloric or literary references to them.  Grissel explains the origin of the occasional recommendation of zinnias to treat eye diseases by suggesting such uses relate to the fame of their namesake, Zinn, as an ophthalmologist whose detailed drawing of the structure of the eye was used in medical textbooks for decades (14). [1] The only literary reference to zinnias that is repeatedly cited is their anachronistic appearance in Walter Pater’s 1885 novel Marius the Epicurean, set in classical Rome. At one point Marius and his friend Favian buy zinnias in the local market to decorate their togas.  Since zinnias are only native to the Americas, which were unknown to the Romans, their appearance in Pater is, as Vita Sackville-West remarks, “out by about some twelve centuries” (Some Flowers 91). In his A Contemplation on Flowers Ward speculates that this inaccurate fictional episode might have been based on the meaning of zinnia in the Edwardian language of flowers(390); according to Greenaway, it signifies “Thoughts of Absent Friends” (47).


            At the height of excitement brought about by stunning new hybrids in the late nineteen century, zinnias did appear briefly in some paintings.  Van Gogh painted a colorful vase-full in 1886,



and in 1891 Mary Cassatt produced “Woman with a Red Zinnia” featuring a rather scraggly red specimen .[2] By the time that Georgia O’Keeffe did her small, understated study of  “Three Zinnias” in 1921, they seem to have dwindled down into a rather commonplace garden flower. Grissell notes that by the end of the nineteenth century, the “lack of pleasant odor” and a certain “stiffness of carriage” began to limit the zinnia’s popularity (108).




Virginia Woolf’s eight references to zinnias –five times in her diaries and letters and three times in her fiction – all seem to either focus on the zinnia’s upright colorful appearance or present it in a list as a kind of generic flower.  Zinnias seem to have always been a staple of the garden at Monk’s House.  In August of 1920, the Woolfs’ first full summer at their Sussex retreat, Virginia wrote her sister Vanessa Bell that “Our zinnias are at their best” (L2 441). A year later she records her delight in the prolific late summer garden: ““Our garden is a perfect variegated chinz: asters, plumasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums & so on: all bright cut from coloured paper, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be” (D2 138).  Fifteen years later, in July of 1936, the Monk’s House garden is still full of zinnias, though they have acquired some annoying predators:  “Here, in our garden, jealousies and strifes, competitions, Queen Maries, all vanities are less than the slug on the Zinnia.  The garden is full of Zinnias. The Zinnias are full of slugs” (L6 58).  But despite this annual battle, zinnias remained a regular feature of the garden.  From 1927 on, Leonard repeatedly mentions buying flowers from Dobbies,[3] among the seed companies cited by Grissell as specializing in zinnias (118), and in 1940, Leonard twice recorded buying them for the garden from Engleman’s, another seed company.


References to zinnias in Woolf’s fiction occur in the middle and late stages of her writing career.  They make their first appearance in the 1929 short story “The Lady in the Looking Glass” where their erect carriage is contrasted to the more twining habits of the story’s mysteriously reflected subject: “She suggested the fantastic and the tremulous convolvulus rather than the upright aster, the starched zinnia, or her own burning roses alight like lamps on the straight posts of their rose trees” (CSF 222).  Two years later, in The Waves, it is the zinnias which are reflected, their erectness submerged as Louis, who like the lady in the looking glass also receives letters, sinks into his imagination: “The whisper of leaves, water running down gutters, green depths flecked with dahlias or zinnas” (TW 121).  Paired with dahlias, another brightly colored flower from Mexico, the zinnias become mere specks of color. Curiously, while writing replies to his letters, Louis imagines himself “upright standing in sun or rain” (121), taking on the characteristic stance of the zinnia. 


In Woolf’s posthumously published novel, Between the Acts, zinnias are diminished to place-holders in a list of plants remembered by the butler Corbett as symbolizing the stability of civilization in the midst of individual vagaries: “Plants remained – the carnation, the zinnia, and the geranium” (76).  Carnations, geraniums, and zinnias were common house flowers at Monk’s House: carnations were among the most frequently ordered, according to Leonard’s Garden Account Book; despite not appearing in his records, geraniums seem to have been regular adornments in the deep window recesses of the living/ dining room, and, as I have documented, zinnias were grown continuously from the 1920’s through Virginia’s death.  All three flowers are erect and colorful. But by 1940, all were increasingly seen as rather old fashioned. As my Herbarium entry on carnations points out, carnations often adorn the chests or breasts of the elder generation in Woolf’s fiction and are occasionally even comically denigrated. Similarly, geraniums have a tendency to become scraps of a faded past, emblems of bourgeoisie conventionality and comfortable stupidity.  Eventually zinnas seem to dwindle for Woolf, like Georgia O’Keeffe, into bright, commonplace cut-outs.[4]




[1] Zinn, who was also a part-time botanist, had described a flower (what we would now call a Peruvian zinnia) which Linneaus recognized as identical to the one he himself was describing, and so deferred to the earlier descriptor by naming the flower after him (Grissell 13).


[2] For an image of the Cassatt painting, go to: https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.46574.html


[3] Leonard records seed purchases from Dobbies in 1927, 1931, twice in 1932, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, and 1941. 


[4] Interestingly, Mary Delany did one of her cut-out paper collages of Zinnias (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1897-0505-901) For more information on Delany see https://www.britishmuseum.org/blog/late-bloomer-exquisite-craft-mary-delany. Delany’s niece had her nearly 1000 paper collages bound and presented them to the British Museum in 1897, but there is no evidence that Woolf ever saw them.

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...