Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bright Lights Cosmos

What’s blooming in the area: Tea and miniature roses, winterfat, datura, Heavenly Blue and ivy-leaf morning glories, cardinal climber, bindweed, trumpet creeper, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, bouncing Bess, bigleaf globemallows, blue vervain, mullein, white sweet clover, sweet pea, velvetweed, yellow and white evening primroses, scarlet beeblossom, alfilerillo, tumble mustard, toothed spurge, stickleaf, lamb’s quarter, pigweed, amaranth, ragweed, goldenrod peaked, broom senecio, snakeweed, wild lettuce, horseweed, African marigold, áñil del muerto, Hopi tea, gumweed, spiny, hairy golden, heath and purple asters, tahokia daisy, fleabane native sunflowers, sandbur, redtop, black grama, barn and muhly ring grasses; Virginia creeper beginning to redden, fruit visible on prickly pear.
What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Red hot poker, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, hartweig, nasturtium, chocolate flower, fern-leaf yarrow, blanket flower, coreopsis, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat, perky Sue, chrysanthemum, yellow cosmos.
Looking east: Hosta, crimson climber morning glory, large-leaf soapwort, coral bells, ipomopsis, California poppy, garlic chives peaked, hollyhock, winecup, sidalcea, pink salvia, pink veronica, pink evening primrose, Jupiter’s beard, sweet alyssum from seed, sedum darkening, Maximilian and garden sunflowers, cutleaf coneflower peaked, zinnias.
Looking south: Rose of Sharon, Blaze rose, tamarix, Sensation cosmos
Looking west: Buddleia, caryopteris, Russian and Rumanian sage, catmint, perennial four o’clock, David phlox, leadplant, purple ice plant, purple coneflower, Mönch aster, Silver King artemisia.
Bedding plants: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, moss rose, petunia, tomato, French marigold.
Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, bougainvillea.
Animal sightings: Small moth, bees on sunflowers, ants, some grasshoppers, caterpillar.
Weather: Clouds but no rain, furnace came on yesterday morning; last rain, 8/31/08; 12:40 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Fall has come to finish a year when nothing arrived on time. Spring was cool, but the rains stopped in March. Plants that expected water budded but didn’t flower. Some that have great shows for a week or two, instead bloomed sporadically all season. The coral bells are still opening new florets.
The winds were delayed, but once they began in April, they never stopped. Plants that won’t tolerate strong buffeting went dormant. Annual seeds that came up stopped growing, and some, like the larkspur and bachelor buttons, simply disappeared.
When the rains arrived earlier than usual, the first part of July, the winds undid their ablutions. Sunflowers are only now in full bloom, three weeks later than last year. Black-eyed Susans and Mexican hats that usually are little more than ripening seed cones this time of year are still flowering.
Last week morning temperatures started falling into the 40's, and the African marigolds and tall red zinnias that finally had started to bud, may never bloom. The one cheerful iconoclast in this anachronistic mix of flowers and seed heads is the yellow cosmos that usually opens by the first of August. In the morning sun, some weeks later than usual, brilliant spots of orange lurk among the lower stems of summer natives where I dropped narrow brown seeds the end of May.
I discovered this central American composite when I lived in Michigan, where my first attempt with the Bright Lights cultivar in 1986 succeeded. Here it took several years before I realized the seeds would only germinate where my house provides shade from mid-afternoon and shelter from southern and western winds.
Cosmos sulphureus is native to southern México and Guatemala, but has spread as far north as Durango, as far south as Ecuador. Bernardino de Sahagún reported the Aztec were using xochipalli flowers for dye when the Spanish arrived. It came to this country as an ornamental, where it was reported wild in the pine lands west of Silver Palm in Dade County, Florida in 1916.
In its preferred homeland, yellow cosmos can grow into a seven-foot bush that blooms all year, but becomes seasonal when it moves beyond the tropics. To promote the zone 8 perennial as an annual, growers needed to modify its habits to bloom the first year. When Thompson and Morgan introduced the shorter, three foot Orange Flare in 1955, it still warned seed "should be sown early" to flower before frost. Now it takes about two and a half months for my Bright Lights to bloom.
By the 1980's, breeders were looking for shorter plants that could complement the ubiquitous French marigolds in suburban gardens. Thompson and Morgan promoted Sunny Red, bred by Sahin, Zaden, as "the first truly dwarf and compact form" in 1986. My first Bright Lights towered two feet above my California poppies, their bare branches extending like windmill sails. Here the hairy square stems only reach a foot.
When Bodger introduced Bright Lights, it described the introduction with its ragweed style leaves as "a bright mixture of yellow, gold, orange and red shades." Most of my flowers are pumpkin, a few the yellow of squash blossoms. In Oakland County, Michigan, with its different soils and weather, yellow dominated.
In a year when nothing can be forecast except uncertainty, its surprising and just a bit reassuring to have an annual follow its normal schedule, bloom the usual ten weeks from planting, even when the sowing was delayed by bad weather and winds, when drought and unexpected temperatures slowed its growth. Such constancy is the more endearing when I remember how much the same cultivar differs between southern Michigan and northern New Mexico, and how the species transforms itself when it migrates.

Bodger. Catalog, 2008.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España, c.1577, translated as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI - Earthly Things by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, 1963.

Sherff, Earl Edward. Revision of the Genus Cosmos, 1932.

Thompson and Morgan. Catalogs, 1955 and 1986.

Photograph: Bright Lights cosmos blooming with the remains of chocolate flowers, 13 September 2008.

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