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Ask Rufus: Gardens of 'Youth and Old Age'


Butterflies loved the zinnias growing last summer in the River Walk Butterfly Garden.

Butterflies loved the zinnias growing last summer in the River Walk Butterfly Garden. Photo by: Courtesy photo


A hand colored engraving of a zinnia published in London by Curtis’ Botanical Magazine in 1801.

A hand colored engraving of a zinnia published in London by Curtis’ Botanical Magazine in 1801.
Photo by: Courtesy photo



Rufus Ward



Gardens around the South are filled each summer with beautiful multicolored zinnias. They are a favorite plant for cutting gardens and butterfly gardens alike. It is a flower with a native range from the Southwestern U.S. to South America but centered in northern Mexico. In its native form it was a weedy plant with a small single flower usually with yellow, orange or pale lilac petals or rays. It is a member of the Astor family and in its wild state is a perennial of arid landscapes. 


The history of the zinnia is a fascinating story that traces American history. In prehistoric times there are associations of the zinnia with the Navajo, Apache, Aztec and other Native Americans of the Southwest. It's flower was used to make a yellow dye and was an ingredient in red body paint. A decoction of the flower was sometimes used in the treatment of stomach and throat ailments. The zinnia was especially tied to the Navajo.  


In Navajo legend yellow zinnias were sent by the "ever-changing-woman," an almost Mother Nature figure, to help lead a Navajo child, Straight-arrow, in search of a means to prevent the destruction of crops. As the story goes it is why the Navajo would plant yellow zinnias in their corn fields. 


The first Europeans to observe the zinnia were the Spanish in Mexico in the 1520s. They did not consider it an attractive flower and called it "mal de ojos" or "sickness of the eye". However seeds were carried back to Spain where some interest was shown in this New World flower.  


At first, Europeans referred to the zinnia Crassina or "somewhat coarse." During the early 1700s interest in zinnias increased in Europe and in 1759 it was renamed Zinnia to honor German professor of botany and medicine Johann Zinn who had just died. Then in 1796 a reddish more attractive form of zinnia was carried to Europe. It was this specimen which caused a sensation and captured the attention of gardeners across Europe.  


Zinnias increased in popularity across Europe and by the 1850s both single and double zinnias of many colors were popular in France. In the 1860s colorful zinnias of purple, orange, red, lavender, yellow and salmon spread across America. Because the center of the zinnia appeared to be a new flower blooming within an older one it became popular in Victorian America to refer to zinnias as "youth and Old Age." America's real love affair with zinnias began in the 1920s when most of the modern varieties so popular today were developed. 


The zinnia as we know it today is the result of four centuries of cultivation and breeding. In the lore of flowers it is interesting that different colors of zinnias have carried different meanings. Magenta colored zinnias represent lasting affection. A grouping of zinnias of different colors represents remembering absent friends. Yellow zinnias are a sign of remembrance. Red zinnias stand for constancy and white represent goodness.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at


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