Carl and Mary Rau, our next-door neighbors in the 1940s in Alloway, New Jersey, always bordered their veggie garden with zinnias. My Uncle Jim and Aunt Gladys Bullion sometimes planted zinnias to complement the bearded irises that shared their Silver Spring, Maryland, veggie garden.
I guess I’m just programmed by history to plant flowers when I plant veggies. I do it for their beauty. This year two have done well.
Between our green beans—which produced poorly this year, most likely because of brown marmorated stink bug damage—and our garage tower three Titan sunflower plants (Helianthus annuus). The packet from Seed Savers Exchange, which sells heirloom veggie and flower seeds, describes Titan as “one of the tallest-growing, big-headed and largest-seeded varieties available.”
Tallest? I won’t quibble. The packet says they grow up to 12-feet tall. Mine are 10-feet, protected by the side of the garage against wind and probably from some rainfall too.
Big-headed? Two of the three are big-headed, with heads of more than 12”, but still short of the predicted 18” to 24”. Again, I suspect inadequate rainfall in their protected location limited growth. Besides, one big head at this address is more than sufficient.
Largest-seeded? Today I cut the two large heads and took them into the garage to dry before marauding squirrels devour these winter treats for local feathered seedavores. The seeds are large, but clearly short of being “largest.” And when I cut away the huge leaves from around the heads, scores of brown marmorated stink bugs scurried from their hiding places.
And the third sunflower? It is a few inches taller than the other two. Instead of one huge flower, it has more than 20 late-blooming small flowers, which, obviously won’t turn into large seed heads. I believe the packet explains the oddity: “Sunflowers will cross-pollinate and must be separated by ½ mile to ensure pure seed.” Oops, one of the three plants came from a cross-pollinated seed—or perhaps from a stray seed in the seed-packaging room.
But, frankly, I’ve enjoyed the oddity more than the two real Titans. The two huge seed heads flowered and then bowed toward the ground, dull and petal less, concentrating, I assume, on maturing their seeds. The third plant, by contrast, with its six-inch flowers has added early-fall delight to our garden—and has attracted scores of skippers and other butterflies and pollinators scouting late-season nectar.
The second flower I’ve enjoyed for several years is Amish cockscomb (Celosia cristata), also from Seed Savers Exchange. Explorers introduced this leafy, red-combed tropical native to Europe in the 1570s from, most likely, Africa, but perhaps from India, Indonesia, or North or South America. Some explorer didn’t keep good notes.
I imagined the cockscomb would be deer-resistant so planted three seedlings outside our fence. My imagination was wrong. Our bambit herds stripped the plants of leaves just as they began to form blooms, but the plants releafed and grew combs, though of reduced size.
About two weeks ago I took my pruners and cut off several stems topped with red combs, stripped off the leaves, tied the stems together to form a small bouquet, and hung it in the garage to dry upside down to keep the stems straight, just as our ancestors did two, three, or four hundred years ago when they wanted to preserve some summer cheer for wintry days. As I tied the combs together, I noticed scores of tiny black seeds already dropping.
I handled the dry bouquet gently today when I carried it inside to put on my desk. I should have done my collecting two weeks earlier, but, really, what’s two weeks when the flower’s been a garden favorite for centuries?