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Seeking the Truth about Zinnias: Q&A with Eric Grissell

February 26th, 2020

In this interview, we talk with author Eric Grissell about writing his new book A History of Zinnias: Flower for the Ages.

A History of Zinnias is a cultural and horticultural history documenting the development of garden zinnias—one of the top ten garden annuals grown in the United States today.


Q: Why did you choose the Zinnia?

Eric Grissell: The subject of zinnias first came about as a result of moving from my shady Maryland garden to southeastern Arizona where sun and water became the primary factors of gardening. I had a bit of luck with dwarf zinnias in Maryland, but I wanted to grow the tall, colorful sorts that require lots of sun. I soon discovered several native species of zinnia that piqued my life-long interest in native plants, and quickly became inundated in zinnias, growing from seed as many color forms and shapes of the annual sorts as possible. I also researched what the native species had to offer. Being a normal gardener (i.e., obsessive compulsive) I soon began to question zinnia origins and histories. Answers were not immediately forthcoming so I began my other indulgence of finding answers about questions that intrigued and/or bothered me. I’ve spent my life doing this with insects so plants were not far behind. At the same time my interest in zinnias became serious I read the entertaining book A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield, which is the history of a single species of scale insect. For some still-unexplained reason I thought a book about zinnias might possibly be infinitely more interesting than one about a little red bug. This admission cannot become common knowledge or I will be ostracized by my entomological colleagues.


Q: Did Zinnias live up to that billing?

Grissell: I suppose readers will be the judge of that! I can say, however, that attempting to learn about zinnias was both challenging and greatly improved my view of “history.” History seems to be divided into specific subjects such as geography, politics, music, and art, along with subsets of these broader categories. Researching the subject of zinnias surprisingly lead me to integrate areas I would not have imagined when I began. That is what eventually lead to a book that is more interesting than a simple history of a flower.


Q: You mention the preface of the book that some purported historical facts about Zinnias are actually complete falsehoods, what were some of your favorite myths to bust?

Grissell: I don’t consider myself a myth buster, but more appropriately a truth seeker. Perhaps the most often quoted sentence in all of zinnia literature is that they were a favorite flower of the Aztec peoples. This statement is made unhesitatingly throughout literature of all kinds but without attempts to verify it. Like much of life (and the Internet) it is simply repeated “knowledge.” Three chapters of my book investigate this problem from many different angles. The obvious of which is that the word “Zinnia” did not exist until 1759. So what was it called before that and how could I find out? Other odd notions about zinnias are that Gottfried Zinn, for whom the zinnia is named, collected zinnia seed in Mexico and was accosted by bandits. The purported incident occurred 150 years after his death, and Zinn had never even left his home country of Germany. This legend appears as fact in popular field guides to this day. Another bit of nonsense is that an elderly British Prime Minister fell off a cliff to his death while botanizing. His wife supposedly had a role in importing zinnia seed to England. Although an interesting bit of legend, it was the wrong wife, the wrong husband, and he didn’t die until a year after the fall—as a result of old age.


Q: On that note, was there anything you learned in research for this book that surprised you?

Grissell: I found it interesting that so many famous people and subjects were associated with zinnias in one way or another. Normally these associations would go unnoticed because no one in their right mind would think to look for them. These simply popped up as a result of searching for information on zinnias. Additionally, when people envision zinnias in the garden the first—and possibly only—thought is of the brightly colored garden varieties, all of which are annuals. I was surprised to learn that half of the two dozen known species are perennials, some verging on dwarf, woody shrublets. These species are considered wildflowers but are rarely mentioned even in wildflower guides. The so-called Desert Zinnia has even been the subject of work by the U. S, Department of Agriculture to develop a genetically diverse (but not engineered) seed source with which to help in restoration of disturbed areas, wildlife habitat improvement and for increasing plant diversity on lands in southeastern Arizona. The Desert Zinnia has also been used in attempts to introduce perennial status into annual garden zinnias.


Q: Do you feel the relative lack of knowledge on the history of Zinnias made your research more fun? or possibly more frustrating?

Grissell: I would have to say both! It certainly was frustrating because I was searching in the dark for 250 years before 1759 when the name “Zinnia” was created. It did force me to look at plants that were more thoroughly researched such as marigolds and dahlias. These have a documented history going back centuries and are endemic to Mexico as is the zinnia. Having to dig deeper and deeper into what was, or was not, known either forces one to give up in frustration or press onward with hope. I chose the latter out of stubbornness and the love of mystery. Eventually discovering minor and major bits of information along the way became increasingly more productive. Integrating such notions as Winston Churchill and battle ships, or Mozart and his students, seemed to have nothing to do with where I started, but a number of such diversions made the latter-day history of zinnias outweigh the earlier frustrations of searching through an abyss until I could admit that the whole project was more fun than I should admit. Hopefully the reader will agree.


Thank you to Eric for taking the time to answer our questions! If you’d like to learn more about Zinnias, you can order your own copy of A History of Zinnias or pick a copy up from your local library!

You can get 30% off A History of Zinnias and all other Purdue University Press books by ordering from our website and using the discount code PURDUE30.