Zinnias are the clowns of the late summer garden. Wacky, sporting mis-matched and often outrageous color combinations, they bob behind the ranks of chic perennials on stalks as long and sturdy as stilts. They’re just too silly to be taken seriously by any self-respecting gardener and yet, by the end of August, they’re often the only colorful things left standing in the border. I’ve come to depend on them over the years and, after discovering Queen Red Lime zinnias, have grown to love them, too. This double flower variety starts with a deep red core, then daubs on shades of lime green to limey pink to a deep purplish red as it grows. It also offers up an entertaining repertoire of shapes: frills, scallops, pin cushions, and a dense intricate center that looks almost crocheted. It dies beautifully, too: its colors muting as though dipped in tea, the flowers turning rounded and mop-like. In the end, its head droops suddenly like a child falling asleep after a long day.
Here’s an excerpt from a poem on the subject by Mona Van Duyn, the first woman to serve as the country’s poet laureate (1992-93).
A Bouquet of Zinnias
Mona Van Duyn
One could not live without delicacy, but when
I think of love I think of the big, clumsy-looking
hands of my grandmother, each knuckle a knob,
stiff from the time it took for hard grasping,
with only my childhood’s last moment for the soft touch.
And I think of love this August when I look
at the zinnias on my coffee table. Housebound
by a month-long heat wave, sick simply of summer,
nursed by the cooler’s monotone of comfort,
I brought myself flowers, a sequence of multicolors.
How tough they are, how bent on holding their flagrant
freshness, how stubbornly in their last days instead
of fading they summon an even deeper hue
as if they intended to dry to everlasting,
and how suddenly, heavily, they hang their heads at the end.
In any careless combination they delight.
Pure peach-cheek beside the red of a boiled beet
by the perky scarlet of a cardinal by flamingo pink
by sunsink orange by yellow from a hundred buttercups
by bleached linen white. Any random armful
of the world, one comes to feel, would fit together.