Story by Colleen O’Neill Nice
I was inspired to write this article after touring gardens in the Pacific Northwest just before travel restrictions were put in place. As I was roaming through “The Farm” of horticulturalist Thomas Hobbs in Langley, British Columbia, I discovered an unusual flower. It was scattered throughout a large, fenced-in area dedicated to vegetables, dahlias and daylilies. The flower form was unique, with hand-painted petals in transitionary shades similar to a watercolor painting. It was love at first sight. The plant was zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’!
I have always had an affection for zinnias. They are the quintessential summer flowering annual. Their vivid colors glow in my summer garden plus they are heat and drought resistant – not to mention low maintenance. Zinnias are the perfect choice for the novice gardener because they are one of the easiest plants to cultivate. They are adaptable and fast growing, nearly effortless for children to learn to nurture. I grow the large flowering varieties of zinnias to attract honeybees, butterflies and hummingbirds with their nectar. Their long lasting, bright blooms beautify my indoor spaces, where I can appreciate their many shapes and sizes. I use the dazzling-colored petals to brighten salads, summer drinks and desserts. If you love gardening, you will no doubt, love zinnias!
Let’s begin with two cultivars of landscape zinnias commonly used in flower borders, beds and containers. Both varieties create an abundance of color and continuously bloom throughout the growing season. The flower structure itself consists of three styles: single-blooms which display a single row of petals with the center of each flower exposed; double-blooms which feature several rows of petals with the center hidden in the petals; and semi-double blooms with an exposed and visible center surrounded by several rows of petals.
The Profusion series, an interspecific hybrid, became an instant hit in the gardening world, and was one of the first zinnias to resist powdery mildew. The plants form compact, vigorous mounds that grow 12 to 18 inches tall and spread to 24 inches wide. The two-inch flowers bloom lavishly over a long season from early summer to frost. They tolerate heat, humidity and drought. Single-bloom colors include red, white, apricot, coral pink, deep apricot, lemon, fire and cherry bicolor. The double-bloom palette features white, cherry, deep salmon, fire and golden yellow. Profusion zinnias love full sun and prefer a well draining, humus-rich, evenly moist soil. Proper plant spacing is critical so avoid overcrowding to prevent poor air circulation. Fortunately, deadheading is not necessary since the new leaves and buds cover the old flowers naturally.
The Zahara series of Zinnia marylandica grow a bit larger than the Profusion series, usually 16 to 20 inches tall. The vibrant blooms are slightly bigger at two-and-a-half inches and continuously blanket the spreading drifts throughout the season. The Zaharas are tough plants and thrive in hot, sunny, dry areas. They are highly resistant to mildew and leaf spot. Single-bloom colors include raspberry, white, pink, yellow, red, and starlight rose (bright rose on white). Double-blooms feature several bi-colors—raspberry ripple (pink with raspberry stripes), sunburst (golden yellow with red stripe) and fire (scarlet-orange) which can be mixed with white, orange, yellow, salmon and cherry. The Zahara zinnias make excellent cut flowers, holding their striking colors as they age.
Profusion and Zahara zinnias are available through local greenhouses and garden centers including Bakers’ Acres in Groton, Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster, and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence. Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece offers a three-color mix of Profusion zinnias in six-inch containers and six packs of Profusion and Zahara zinnias. Palmiter’s Nursery grows both Profusion and Zahara zinnias in jumbo six packs. Seeds are available at Harris Seed, Park Seed, and Swallowtail Garden Seeds.
The Zinderella series of Z. elegans exploded onto the horticulture scene when ‘Zinderella Peach’ won Europe’s Fleuroselect Novelty Award for its unique color and very unusual flower form. It is the first scabiosa-flowered (pincushion) zinnia offered in unique color combinations. Abundant blooms thrive on healthy plants that grow 24 to 36 inches tall. Impressive two-and-a-half-inch crested, delicate flowers are brilliant in bouquets and arrangements.
The frilly double blooms of ‘Zinderella Lilac’ combine soft lavender and blush—with a striking dark center. ‘Zinderella Purple’ has tightly clustered short petals over a skirt of layered, longer, daisy-like petals. It is a very distinct, luscious shade of fuchsia-lilac. ‘Zinderella Peach’ boasts large, crested pompom blooms of bright peach with a delicate cream ring around the central eye. Charming ‘Zinderella Orange’ offers a delicate cream halo and bright tangerine pompoms with hints of deep gold. Creamy white blooms of double, semi-double and single flowers adorn ‘Zinderella White’. For an added punch of color, the fiery-crimson ‘Zinderella Red’ includes both single and large-domed doubles.
Keep your Zinderellas happy and robust by growing them in full sun. Pinch back the seedlings when they are six to eight inches tall to encourage bushiness. Try to thin out plants early, leaving one to one-and-a-half feet between seedlings to discourage disease and increase air circulation. Zinderellas need to be deadhead for continuous blooms. The inflorescence attracts good bugs and pollinators, so scatter your seeds in the vegetable patch and amongst other flowering plants to increase beneficial insects throughout your entire garden. Zinnias are a “cut-and-come-again” annual. They set new buds as soon as the old flowers are cut or deadheaded and then repeat this process reliably all summer. So fill your vases, share bouquets with your neighbors, and float some blooms in your birdbath—the more you cut, the more will bloom. Keep in mind that Zinderella seeds are open-pollinated (they breed true and produce plants identical to their parents), so collect and save some seeds for next year.
If you prefer a medley of vibrant blooms in pink, purple, red, yellow, orange and white with the unique pincushion inflorescence, try a scabiosa-flowered mix. These sun-loving annuals grow to 30 inches tall and thrive in nutrient-rich soil. The textured, two-to-three-inch, dome-shaped blooms resemble the wildflower scabiosa, hence the name. Treat them to bloom-boosting fertilizer during the growing season.
Seed sources include Park Seed, Johnny’s Selected Seed, Swallowtail Seeds, Eden Brothers, and Select Seeds.
Some of the loveliest annuals are the cactus-type zinnias (Z. elegans), which have been around for decades. These zinnias have double or semi-double flowers with petals that twist and curl. Spectacular, four-to-five-inch, shaggy blooms include every color of the rainbow except blue. Branching plants grow three feet tall and two feet wide. Their long, strong stems make them ideal for cutting.
Z. elegans ‘Redman Super Cactus’ produces fiery orange-red, six-inch flowers with contrasting yellow flares at the center of each flower. They bloom constantly from June until frost in fertile soil with ample water during dry periods. This new distinct spidery-petaled zinnia is heat tolerant and mildew resistant.
Other cactus-type zinnias are available in color blends such as the giant cactus mixes that include warm shades of yellow, orange, rose, red, pink, salmon, and white. The long, needle-thin petals add texture and long-lasting color to any sunny spots in your garden. Plants grow to 30 inches tall and 12 inches wide with blooms stretching to five inches across. To prevent mildew, water early in the day so foliage can dry off before nightfall or with a soaker hose to minimize wetting the foliage. Space plants generously to prevent overcrowding.
At Renee’s Garden, the custom heirloom mix ‘Raggedy Anne’ includes radiant shades of canary and golden yellow, orange, crimson, scarlet, coral, carmine rose, lilac rose, pink, and white—a shade for every garden color scheme. The giant flower faces have curved and twisted narrow petals like quilled chrysanthemums. Plants can be encouraged to branch if the long stems are cut well back into the plant. Grow large and abundant flowers by thinning the seedlings before they get crowded and watering regularly during dry spells.
Plants are online at Annie’s Annuals and Perennials and White Flower Farm. Purchase seeds at Renee’s Garden, Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Park Seed.
Cut flower zinnias
New to the cut flower category are the unique colorations of the Queen series. Though it is cultivated in the same manner as other zinnias, it is specifically grown in cut flower gardens. Reaching heights of over 4 feet tall at maturity, these stunning plants make a huge visual impact in the landscape and attract multitudes of pollinators as well. They continue to bloom throughout the summer, even as the flowers are cut for use in vases.
The green ‘Queen Lime’ zinnia is popular and stunning with beautiful, double blooms in shades of chartreuse. ‘Queen Red Lime’ offers the same double flowers but transitions from lime green to shades of rose and pink with soft chartreuse in between. ‘Queen Lime-Orange’ displays a cherry center surrounded by lime petals transitionary to orange—simply stunning! The very elegant ‘Queen Lime-Blush’ features splashes of a rosy tint on lime green inflorescences. Flowers are about two to three inches wide and look almost papery and somewhat Victorian. Well-branched plants grow 32 to 40 inches tall and 18 inches wide with sturdy stems. Queen Lime zinnias thrive in summer heat. They bloom from mid to late summer—even into the fall—after many other flowers are exhausted. Be sure to harvest flowers early in the morning when they are fully open, since they will not continue to open once they are cut. To keep flowers fresh in a vase, add a few drops of bleach to the water. Queen series zinnias are lovely in massed plantings and make dramatic additions to containers and garden beds. The ‘Queen Lime’ cultivars can easily be grown from seed if you cannot find transplants at your local garden center or nursery. Refer to the seed starting tips included with my article.
Zinnia ‘State Fair’ mix displays colossal five-inch flowers with flat petals forming single and semi double blooms. A wide range of colors include red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, white and bicolors. Robust plants grow 3 feet tall, exhibit good disease resistance and thrive in sunny, warm conditions. Reenie Sandsted of Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells ‘State Fair Giant’. According to her, “it grows tall, makes a great cut flower, and is our best seller.”
‘State Fair’ mix is available at Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece, Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster, Palmiter’s Nursery in Avon, and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence.
Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells both the ‘Queen’ series and ‘State Fair Giant’ in six packs.
Seeds are available at Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds and Burpee.
Bicolor and multicolor zinnias
The next category of easy-to-grow zinnias are the chic bicolors and swanky multi-colors. Z. elegans ‘Zowie Yellow Flame’ is a showstopper with three-inch, semidouble flowers with iridescent magenta centers and petals dipped in orange. The flowers darken as they age to a ruby-rose, ending with a finale of yellow and red blooms. As the flower matures, a circle of small golden stars surrounds its center disk. An All-American Selections winner, this bicolor grows 24 to 36 inches tall and stands up to heat and tough conditions. Deadheading will keep these annuals producing flowers, while minimal pinching is necessary to keep the plants full.
Zinnia ‘Candy Cane’ mix, an heirloom with double blooms, is bold and vibrantly striped or flecked. Eye-catching, four-inch inch flowers combine bright pink, rose and cherry stripes on white, and sometimes gold, blossoms sprinkled with orange-magenta splotches. Flowers grow 18 inches tall and bloom from midsummer to frost, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds galore.
The beautiful ‘Peppermint Stick’ zinnias include double flowers striped and splotched in shades of cream, yellow, carmine, rosy-purple, orange and scarlet. No two flowers look exactly alike, and they are perfect for arrangements. Heavy bloomers, the 24 to 28 inches tall plants are easy to grow in full sun and are resistant to deer and rabbits.
The bicolor, scarlet-red ‘Mazurkia’ zinnias flaunt petal tips frosted with pearly white. Sturdy, branching plants grow 24 to 30 inches tall and are perfect for containers or sunny borders. Mix ‘Mazurkia’ with annuals like Verbena bonariensis and Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’. Try Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ and Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll White’ for lively combinations. The typical vase life for zinnias is seven days, which can be extended further with the use of flower preservatives.
The ‘Whirligig’ mix reminds me of a gallardia or gazania. The cheerful, single to semi-double daisy shaped blooms open in every color and pattern, with lively, multicolor combinations and contrasting petal tips. Reminiscent of pinwheels, the three-to-four-inch flowers grow on 24-inch sturdy stems, perfect for summer bouquets. Prevent mildew by watering early in the day so foliage can dry off and space generously to prevent overcrowding.
Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells ‘Peppermint Stick’. Seeds sources include Harris Seed, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Burpee, and Thompson & Morgan.
SEED STARTING TIPS:
If you start your zinnia seeds outdoors, choose a spot in full sun, add compost or fertilizer to the soil, and sow seeds at a depth of one-quarter inch. Zinnia seeds germinate well if both air and soil temperatures are more than 70 degrees. Keep soil surface moist until plants emerge. Zinnia seedlings grow in about seven to ten days after sowing. When the seedlings are three inches tall, they need to be thinned out from six to 18 inches apart depending on the variety. This is done to maximize air circulation.
If you start your zinnia seeds indoors, sow seeds five to seven weeks before your last frost date at a depth of a quarter inch in a good seed starting medium in cell packs or flats. Press seeds into the soil and lightly cover. Maintain a temperature of 70-75 degrees F and keep the soil moist. Plants need to be “hardened off” before planting in your garden. This process toughens the plant’s cell structure and reduces transplant shock and scalding from the sun. Acclimatize young plants to outdoor conditions by moving them to a sheltered place outside for a week, protecting them from wind, direct sun and cold temperatures. Once hardened off, choose a location in full sun, add compost or fertilizer to the soil, and space the transplants nine to 12 inches apart, depending on the variety. For strong growth, prolific blooms, and minimal disease and pest damage, water as needed, adding mulch to prevent weeds and retain moisture within the soil.
The cutie pies of the zinnia world are the dwarf zinnias—growing from 6 to 14 inches tall and commonly planted in flower borders. Cherished for their small size, these petite plants grow well when interplanted with other annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Although the plants remain small throughout the growing season, the potential bloom size will vary depending upon the zinnia variety.
Zinnia elegans ‘Thumbelina’ mix includes single and semi-double one-and-a-quarter-inch blooms on six-inch plants. The compact, dome-shaped annuals start to bloom at just three inches tall in shades of orange, pink, white, and yellow.
Considered the best dwarf zinnia ever grown, the ‘Magellan’ series is truly an outstanding garden performer, especially as a bedding plant. The vibrant, double, four-to-five-inch flowers are arranged with layer after layer of petals crowned with a frilly yellow center. The sturdy, 14-inch plants are smothered with blooms over a long summer season. The mix contains seven bold colors including cherry, pink, orange, ivory, yellow, scarlet, and coral. Seeds for each of the colors can be purchased separately as well. Deadhead the old flowers to keep new buds developing for even more superb color!
The ‘Dreamland’ series has been around for several years enticing gardeners with its early, four-inch, long-lasting blooms on compact, robust 10 to 12-inch plants. The dahlia-form flowers, with waxy petals, are rugged and weather-tolerant during summer storms. They quickly form a solid carpet of color in large beds and borders. Eight harmonious hues include apricot, coral, pink, rose, yellow, ivory, red, and scarlet! Marla Palmiter at Palmiter’s Nursery in Avon offers the ‘Dreamland’ series and grows both a mix and the coral. According to Palmiter, “The ‘Dreamland’ coral is gorgeous and very popular.” When cut, the flowers are stunning and stay fresh for well over a week in a vase. If growing ‘Dreamland’ from seed, sow in succession for a longer flowering period.
Tom Pfentner, owner of Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence, has been growing zinnias for more than 50 years. “We started with the ‘Dreamland’ varieties then added the ‘Profusion’ and ‘Zahara’s. We also grow the tall ‘State Fair’ mix,” he says. “Zinnias are prolific bloomers and continue flowering well into the fall.”
‘Dreamland’ plants are available at Palmiter’s and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence. Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster sells the ‘Magellan’ series in four-and-a-half inch pots. Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece grows the ‘Dreamland’ and ‘Thumbelina’ mixes in six packs and ‘Magellan’ mix in eight-inch containers. Seed sources include Burpee and Park Seed.
Benary’s ‘Giant Dahlia’ series (Z. elegans) is considered a premium zinnia recommended by the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Densely petaled blooms create a beehive shape with added dimension, growing up to six inches across. They are long-lasting in bouquets. Colors include deep red, orange, carmine rose, coral, lime, wine, purple, bright pink, white, salmon rose, scarlet, and golden yellow. Seeds can be purchased by color or in a mix. Benary’s giants are vigorous, reaching heights of 40 to 50 inches and holding up remarkably well in summer rain and heat.
The Z. elegans ‘Giant Dahlia Flowered’ mix offers a vibrant combination of yellows, roses, scarlet, green, orange, pink, red, purple, and coral flowers on strong, 30-to-40-inch stems. Similar in color and habit to Benary’s giants, the flower structure of the ‘Giant Dahlia’ mix includes single, double and semi-double, 4-to-6-inch blooms. Collect and save the seed for next year, since both varieties are open-pollinated. Seeds are available at Harris Seed, Swallowtail Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds.
Zinnias are the hardest working flower that you can employ in your summer garden! They are fast growers. Plan to direct-sow zinnia seeds in the spring, then sow a second batch in mid-summer. Fill your containers with zinnias using quick and easy six packs. All zinnia varieties—old or new—can brighten up your garden when it may be looking a little tired by summer’s end. Zinnias make colorful companions for ornamental grasses, roses, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans and hydrangeas. Scatter zinnia seeds in your perennial garden to add color and fill in spaces as you wait for plants to mature. When native plant sources are running low on pollen and nectar, attract hummingbirds, bees and butterflies with large-flowered varieties. Plant bright and beautiful zinnias in a butterfly garden near your porch or patio so you can enjoy them as well. The only challenging aspect of growing zinnias is deciding which varieties to plant.
ONLINE PLANT & SEED SOURCES:
Annie’s Annuals and Perennials
Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seed
Pinetree Garden Seeds
Swallowtail Garden Seeds
Thompson & Morgan
White Flower Farm
Available in unique color combinations, Zinderella ‘Peach’ is a scabiosa-flowered (pincushion) zinnia.
The flowers of the Benary’s Giant Dahlia zinnias grow up to 6 inches across.
The double flowers of Queen ‘Red Lime’ include shades of rose, pink and soft chartreuse.
Pink Profusion zinnias mingle with Allium tuberosum and Benary’s Giant Orange zinnias.
The shaggy blooms of the heirloom cactus-type zinnias feature narrow, quilled petals.
The stunning bi-color bloom of Zahara ‘Starlight Rose’.
Zinnia ‘Zowie Yellow Flame’ is vibrant with magenta, orange and yellow petals.
Sun tolerant Coleus ‘Wasabi’ and orange Profusion zinnias spillover their container.
Profusion Yellow zinnias add a splash of color to any sunny garden bed.
by Colleen O’Neill Nice
Several years ago, as hungry deer became the nightly norm at my garden buffet, I decided to slowly remove all the plants that were attracting them. My beloved hedge of hydrangeas was the first to go. I successfully replanted my Annabelle’s in large pots which have continued to beautify our walled patio – out of reach of the ravenous deer. Then, systematically, I removed the yews, hollies, rhododendron, andromeda and more – slowly replacing the deer food with critter resistant plants. As I contemplated ideas for downsizing my hosta collection, my dear friend Kay signed me up for a series of on-line native plant lectures.
After just a few classes, it was obvious to me that I needed to shift my thinking and “bring nature home” by slowly replacing my hostas with native plants. My overall plan was to attract a diversity of insects and birds with a natural habitat thus contributing to the dynamics of the food web. After some research, I discovered that many of my established shade-friendly plants just happen to be natives! In addition, the list of shade-loving natives is extensive and makes selecting a few, somewhat difficult. Here are a handful of my favorite easy to grow natives in addition to a couple from my wishlist.
Actaea pachypoda (white baneberry) and Actaea rubra (red baneberry) are real showstoppers in the shade! Both have lacy, astilbe-like foliage and creamy white flowers in late May, then form berries in July and August. A. pachypoda displays white berries with a tiny black dot in the center, commonly named “China doll eyes”. A. rubra adds drama with clusters of shiny red berries arching over the dark green foliage. The berries are poisonous and should never be eaten by humans. During wet springs, my plants have grown to over 4 feet tall, so give these beauties enough room to spread out. The pollen of the baneberry attracts small beetles and native bees. The American robin, gray catbird, and wood thrush readily eat the fruit. Baneberry is also a caterpillar host plant for four species of butterflies and moths.
Asarum canadense is the perfect ground cover for woodland shade. Often called wild ginger, its pubescent, heart-shaped foliage spreads by rhizomes to create a dense mat. In May, burgundy-brownish flowers bloom at the base of the plant, well below the foliage. In early spring, pollinators include gnats and flies that are attracted to both the color and scent of the flower. Wild ginger is also a caterpillar host plant for moths.
Arisaema triphyllum is easy to grow, requires minimal care and thrives under a variety of conditions. Jack-in-the-pulpit, its common name, displays a very unusual flower with two parts – ‘Jack’ being the spadix of the flower covered by the colored spathe or ‘pulpit’. This three season plant offers long-lasting flowers in spring, green berries in summer and bright red berries in fall, persisting long after the foliage dies back. Wood thrushes are hungry for the berries and moth caterpillars eat the foliage. Jack-in-the-pulpit is pollinated by fungus gnats, which are lured into the hooded spathes by a modest fungal odor. The gnats then lay their eggs on what they are tricked into believing is a fungus.
Sanguinaria canadensis has earned the common name “bloodroot” since its roots and stalk contain a bitter red-orange juice. Its showy, fragrant, white flowers bloom from March through April. Bloodroot has large, round, deeply-lobed leaves that are unique and intriguing. The bloodroot flower only opens on sunny days and does not contain any nectar, but attracts insects with its colorful petals and anthers. The flowers entice native solitary bees for cross pollination. Since these bees are most active in temperatures of 55 degrees or greater, many species of flies act as secondary pollinators. Metallic green sweat bees also visit the flowers using the pollen to feed their young. After bees finish with bloodroot, ants march in. Through a symbiotic relationship called "myrmecochory," a few species of ants plant and harvest bloodroot seeds. Tiny bumps on the seeds are filled with oils and sweets that attract ants. The ants then carry the seeds to their nests, where they eat the sweets but abandon the viable seed. In the spring, new bloodroot plants pops up here and there, compliments of the hard working ants. This native plant is present in all WNY counties except Orleans, Wyoming, Steuben, Schuyler, Tioga and Cortland.
For a unique ground cover with large umbrella-like leaves opt for Podophyllum peltatum. Commonly known as the “may apple”, it displays waxy, apple-blossom-like flowers that bloom in May. It spreads by underground stems to form a dense mat and although it prefers moist soil, it will tolerate drought and dryish conditions. In late August, the sweet smelling green ‘apple’ develops and then ripens to a golden hue. The nodding fruit is large and fleshy, shaped like a lemon. It is edible and used in preserves and jellies. The may apple provides food and shelter for birds, squirrels and other small animals. The flowers are fragrant and visited by bumblebees and other long-tongued bees. Seven species of butterflies and moths use this as a caterpillar host plant. Occasionally my colony of may apple does get munched on by deer despite the leaves and roots being poisonous.
Although ferns do not produce flowers for pollinators, they support wildlife by providing shelter for toads and lizards. Birds also use the delicate fronds as nesting material. An attractive, non-invasive native fern, Adiantum pedatum is fascinating and easy to grow. Commonly called the “maidenhair fern”, this beauty starts out a bit slow to grow, but be patient. Once it gets established, it forms a large clump with finely textured fronds and curved, wiry blackish stems. It “prefers” to grow in part shade to full shade in well-drained moist, humus-rich soil. But, do keep this in mind. After giving my daughter a couple small pots of maidenhair’s, her plants grew four times the size of mine. She planted them in part sun, with rain being their only irrigation in humus-lean soil. Last fall, after a couple years of growth, I divided her clumps into 28 gallon-sized pots. My suggestion – do not coddle them!
Fall blooming native plants supply pollinators with oodles of food sources as they begin to prepare for winter. Hummingbirds and butterflies need a great deal to eat before heading south. Honeybees and native bees create winter food stockpiles by gathering as much pollen and nectar as possible.
Symphyotrichum cordifolium, also known as the “blue wood aster”, tolerates shade conditions well. Arched stems rise 2 to 5 feet tall topped by panicles of small blue daisy-like flowers with yellow centers. The blue wood aster is a pollinator magnet. The flowers attract bumble bees, moths and butterflies. Songbirds and small mammals eat the seeds. Several specialized bees are frequent visitors as well. An evolutionary modification makes the efforts of both the plant and the pollinator very efficient. When in bud and ready to open, the disk flowers are pale yellow. As they age, the disks change to pink or magenta. Pollinators who visit the receptive yellow disk flowers will be rewarded with nectar, while the pink flowers detour the pollinators away from blossoms that have been successfully pollinated and offer no nectar. Isn’t nature amazing?
With a plethora of native plants eager to thrive in shade, I anxiously began my transition from hostas to the humming of wildlife savoring endemic goodies. So long slugs, adios deer! Anyone in need of some gently used hostas?
For a list of plant nurseries by state that offer 100% native plants visit Choose Natives, Plant For Life at: https://choosenatives.org/location/native-nurseries/
For a list of over 90 plants native to Western New York and six different planting plans visit Buffalo Niagara Waterkeepers at: https://bnwaterkeeper.org/projects/nativeplantguide/
For a native plant list by zip code visit the Native Plant Finder. Here plants are ranked by the number of butterfly and moth species that use the plants as hosts for their caterpillars (see butterfly symbol and number on right side of each plant photo) at: https://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder/Plants
By Colleen O’Neill Nice
In my garden, I lead a troupe of dancers which perform on a seasonal stage. Peonies kick up their delicate skirts of fragrant, showy petals in spring, similar to lively French can-can dancers. Summer erupts with vibrant, vigorous clematis that pirouette like prima ballerinas, twining up obelisks and arbors. By autumn, hydrangeas rhumba about with big billowy blossoms in shades of white, pink, purple and blue. My lead dancers flitter across the garden stage commanding well deserved attention, but it is the back-up dancers that offer a supporting role in every season. I choreograph several species of carex which provide year-round interest by adding texture, color and movement. Commonly referred to as sedge, most varieties are easy to grow and many are drought tolerant. Several evergreen cultivars offer much needed winter interest here in Western New York.
One of the largest genera of vascular plants, sedges can be found worldwide with 500 species native to North America. The New York Flora Atlas (https://newyork.plantatlas.usf.edu/) lists over 227 sedges with over 70 species native to WNY. These hardy tufts provide food and refuge for insects and animals while revitalizing natural landscapes.
Sedges are grass-like plants, but are not true grasses. They may look similar to rushes and ornamental grasses, but after closer inspection, the differences are evident. Sedges have triangular stems that are absent of nodes (joints where the leaves meet the stem). Rushes have cylindrical stalks. Ornamental grasses usually have hollow stems with distinct nodes. This rhyme may be useful when comparing several specimens: “Sedges have edges, and rushes are round, but grasses have nodes from their tips to the ground.” The “edges” refer to the sedge’s triangular stems. Keep in mind that sedges green-up and bloom early and look pleasing all summer, while many ornamental grasses take an entire season to mature.
Noted for their adaptability to many site conditions, some sedges are suited for moist, boggy areas while others thrive in dry shade. Some have arching or spiked growth habits while others are open and airy. Sedges provide understated support in the garden with their compact or mounding frames. Foliage ranges from fine-textured to course blades. Leaf colors include green, blue-green, gold and bronze. Several varieties are edged with complementary bands of white, silver or yellow. They can be grown in containers, rock gardens, perennial beds, woodland borders and in native plant habitats.
Sedges provide gardeners with many choices due to the large number of species and cultivars available. For example, Carex alata grows in full sun with plenty of moisture while Carex pensylvanica prefers part to full shade in dry soil. Sedges range in height from the six inch Carex eburnea to the three foot tall Carex blanda. Carex siderosticha ‘Banana Boat’ loves wet sites and can tolerate heavy shade. Colorful sedges include the very showy Carex oshimensis EverColor ‘Everillo’ which glows yellow and ‘Eversheen’ which shimmers lime green — even through a light dusting of snow.
Numerous sedges are cool season plants that do much of their growing in spring or fall. They may go dormant during summer heat. Most cool weather sedges are best planted in the fall and prefer growing in 60 to 75 degree temperatures. They grow well in the Northern States yet are hardy in zones 4 through 10. These sedges add verticality in winter, tolerate some drought and can be semi-evergreen.
Both native varieties and hybridized versions of sedge produce tiny seeds which are enjoyed by many birds including ducks, grouse, wild turkeys and sparrows. Many animals use the foliage to line their nests. Small mammals and caterpillars depend on sedges in spring as a food source. In the fall, clumps create a micro-habitat and provide refuge for beneficial insects. They also provide attractive winter interest, maintaining their colorful foliage. Most are deer-resistant and low maintenance.
In late spring, gently rake out the dead foliage from the previous year or cut the tufts back to about four inches tall. Use sharp, pointed garden scissors to snip out any dead blades. In early summer, sedge can be fertilized with a light nitrogen plant food.
Sedges will grow in average garden soil, but adding organic matter when planting is beneficial. Most prefer moist, well-drained soil, but some varieties tolerate drought once they are established. Water plants at least once a month in dry shaded areas and twice a month during severe drought conditions. Using mulch helps retain moisture in the soil and prevents dehydration during the hottest summer days.
Propagation of many sedges is easy and can be done by division in early spring. Interesting and hard-to-find varieties can be propagated from seeds available at Everwilde Farms (Everwilde.com) or Prairie Moon Nursery (Prairiemoon.com).
Amanda’s Garden (Amandasnativeplants.com) in Dansville, New York just south of Rochester, offers mail order and pickup. Check the Choose Natives website (choosenatives.com) for additional native plant nurseries by state. Pollen Nation (pollennation.com) has been a great source for several sedges that I could not find locally. For a wealth of information about Carex, visit Hoffman Nursery’s website (Hoffmannursery.com). They specialize in ornamental and native grasses.
As your garden transitions through the seasons, add a couple new back-up dancers to your garden stage. Use the Carex Comparison Chart to find the perfect varieties for your site and get planting. Your sedges will rhumba through the garden and not miss a beat.
Colleen O’Neill Nice is a horticulturalist who is passionate about plant propagation and enjoys nurturing her garden in Clarence, NY.