WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE about zinnias? Organic seed farmer and breeder Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds and I both vote an emphatic “yes” in favor of making zinnias a part of every garden year.
But what goes into creating the diversity of zinnia colors and forms and sizes? And what are some new looking ones that you might want to try in 2024?
Don Tipping founded Siskiyou Seeds, a family run farm-based seed company, in 1997. His farm with a view is located at 2,000 feet of elevation in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon, and has close to 1,000 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers in its collection. As if that were not enough, Don creates a YouTube channel of how-to videos and a long-running blog, and hosts multiple on-farm trainings for gardeners and farmers each year.
We talked about that beloved annual flower, the zinnia (that’s ‘Queeny Lime Orange,’ above), and more.
Plus: Comment in the box near the bottom of the page to enter to win a $25 gift certificate for Siskiyou Seeds.
Read along as you listen to the Feb. 5, 2024 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
zinnias and more, with don tipping
Margaret Roach: Winter! But I guess it’s seed-selling season, so probably not winter, not quiet, for you.
Don Tipping: Yeah.
Margaret: You and I recently collaborated on a story in “The New York Times,” a garden column on growing onions and leeks, something you taught me how to do almost a decade ago, how to grow them from seed. And so I’ll give a link to our former conversation, for people who want to get started on those earlybird crops. But zinnias: We share this passion, as I said in the introduction, for zinnias, yes?
Don: Yeah, very much so. It seems like kind of an obvious thing to like, like having vanilla ice cream be your, or I mean chocolate be your favorite type of ice cream. But I think because they have so much potential in terms of diversity of flower forms and colors, I just keep coming back to my intrigue with them.
Margaret: Yeah. I mean, I’ve always known them since I first gardened, and yet I never knew ones like the shapes and sizes and whatever that I’m seeing these days. And so, I notice, I see on some catalog websites that there are some hybrid zinnias, but all of yours, all of the Siskiyou Seeds’ varieties of everything, are open-pollinated, yes?
Don: Correct, yeah. And I think it’s difficult; people want to reduce things down into binaries of open-pollinated or hybrid. But the truth of the matter is, is that populations are constantly hybridizing, and that’s where Dr. John Navazio taught me: to use the term proprietary F1 hybrids when referring to those commercial ones. Whereas zinnias, in particular, because they have what are called jumping genes [laughter], they are transposons, the molecular-biologist term for them. But basically, this is how epigenetics show up in flowers, of genes that can be turned on or off.
So, it’s really difficult to stabilize some of the unique variants of zinnias. You really have to grow thousands of plants to see that one-in-a-thousand individual. And just because you save seed from it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve stabilized it and those traits will continue to express in subsequent generations.
Margaret: Right. So, the parent plant, all its babies won’t be identical, any more than I don’t look like my parents [laughter].
Don: Yeah, exactly.
Margaret: To simplify things. So, how many years since you first tinkered with a zinnia, since you let a whole population grow out in a field somewhere at your place and said, “Ooh, I really like that one over there. I’m going to save seed from that one.” How long ago, do you suppose?
Don: Well, it was sort of an evolution. We used to grow zinnia seed every year for Seeds of Change [catalog] in large quantities, where we’d grow 5 or 10 pounds of seed. And when we are doing that, we are typically growing a single color. So anything that deviated from that, we would actually destroy those plants, pull them out by the roots. So then eventually, in about 2009, is when I began to realize that, oh, those unique ones, that might be something worth saving seed from and actually beginning to nudge it in that direction, because just like my analogy with ice cream, you can get vanilla and chocolate anywhere.
But unique types, I think that is really the bread and butter for these small regional seed companies like Siskiyou Seeds—not offering the usual kind, but having unique types. Yeah, and it keeps it interesting for me, because I’ve been doing this 30 years, so I’ve got to find new ways to keep it exciting.
Margaret: New adventures. First, there were, decades ago, I don’t even remember the names of the zinnias, and then the ‘Benary’s Giants’ [above] became a thing. But lately, these Queeny Lime ones, the ones with the word queen in them-
Margaret: … are just so gorgeous, and they kind of appeared and everybody, a lot of people started selling them. I can’t find any information on who bred them or where they began. I see “the breeder” referred to as just “the breeder” in various catalog descriptions in various places, but I don’t see who it was [laughter]. So, that’s been sort of one of the latest in ages.
But you’ve gone off in a direction; yours, as you described, some of them look like “undersea creatures,” and just some of them come off sort of cactus-shaped flowers and get even wilder and crazier. Yeah? [Below, a couple of flowers from his ‘Tidepool Mix.’]
Don: Well, I think you’re actually shining a light on, when you describe some of these new varieties that show up in the big mainstream catalogs, on a bit of the underbelly of the largely Dutch flower-seed trade. And I can’t verify this, but I want to start looking and poking around. I’ve heard that they use irradiation to induce polyploidy and novelty in a lot of flower variants, because florists are always looking for the new thing, and genetics tends to throw out the off types. The mutants tend not to express readily.
But through literally irradiating or doing novel breeding technologies like cell fusion and cisgenics, the mainstream industry has been tinkering with things. So, it’s different than the traditional GMO.
We’re not doing that here. I’m just literally combing the fields looking for novelty, and we take little ribbons of surveying tape where I actually use jewelry bags that are like breathable mesh.
So, if I have a large population, let’s say 1,000 plants or more, and I noticed an individual, zinnias are in the Asteraceae, so they’re related to calendula, sunflowers, lettuce, marigolds, chrysanthemum, asters, that type of thing. And that they widely open-pollinate, and they have two types of flowers in them. They have disc flowers and ray flowers. And if you’ve ever held calendula seed in your hand, you can really see this, or looked at a zinnia, for instance, up close and see how the disc florets have little yellow flowers that in and of themselves are flowers, that have both male and female flower parts and can pollinate themselves or be cross-pollinated. Whereas the ray florets, what we look at as petals.
Margaret: Petals, right.
Don: … are actually showy bracts, to use the botanical term. Those don’t have stamens, so they don’t make pollen, but they can receive pollen. So, when you look at the calendula seed, back to that example, you see what look like little gray fishhooks, and then larger buff-colored fishhooks. The little ones are from the disc florets, and the larger ones are from the ray florets. This differentiation is less pronounced in zinnias, but if you carefully sort out your zinnia seed, you can figure out which seeds came from the disc florets-
Don: … whereas those that came from the ray florets.
Don: So, every time a pollination thing happens, you have a whole myriad of, it could be self-pollinating. So, I’m explaining this to describe the jewelry bag. Why use that? Because then you know that whole plant is self-pollinated, or that flower, and that’s assuming you got to it before the florets on the disc opened up. So, you have to go out in the morning—when it’s still kind of cool out and there’s dew—and look for flowers that are a little on the immature side, and then put the bag over it and then let it mature. You’re greatly reducing the amount of viable seed when you do this, but it is a way to begin to narrow down in the direction you want to go.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. So, you’re not irradiating, you’re putting jewelry bags on it.
Margaret: So you’re making observations and putting ribbons on them and putting jewelry bags on them [laughter] and so forth, and kind of steering the population, if you can, in a direction that appeals to you. And the assortment of zinnias that you sell in the Siskiyou catalog, I mean, you have some really fun ones. You do have one of those Queeny types, I forget which one you have. And another mix that I’ve always liked, the ‘Jazzy Mix,’ which I think is so well-named because it’s got such fun sort of colors in it. But you have one that I’ve never actually grown, called ‘Red Spider?’ [below]. Tell us about that one. That’s quite different. It looks like a species plant to me, that one. Do you know what I mean? It looks-
Don: Oh, totally.
Margaret: …very old, back-to-the-roots kind of genetics. Yeah.
Don: Well, you mentioned the ‘Jazzy Mix,’ and that is actually a different species from the traditional zinnias that people grow. So, the traditional zinnia that most people are familiar with, the Latin name is Zinnia, the genus, and elegans is the species.
Whereas the genus for the ‘Jazzy Mix’ is Zinnia, once again, the species name is haageana, so it’s actually a different species. They all originated in central Mexico, where it was basically a wildflower. And so, the ‘Red Spider’ is, I think, really more of a progenitor of modern zinnias.
Margaret: Isn’t it like tenuifolia or something? It’s like a whole species into itself.
Don: Exactly, yeah. So, the plants are more diminutive. They only grow 18 to 24 inches tall. They’re all red. I’ve never seen another one that’s a different color. And they don’t tend to thrive as much here, and perhaps we live in the mountains, so maybe it’s our cool nights, whereas subtropical central Mexican highlands is a different climate than Oregon. But nonetheless, I like growing them just for their novelty. And the petals tend to be thinner, so I think that’s where the name spider comes from.
You can think of dahlias, which are also native to central Mexico. And if you look at the seed-grown varieties, you get to see sort of the parental forms that gave birth to all the different modern ones that were ultimately hybrids, and then people went to tuber reproduction.
Margaret: Yeah. You have some fun with them. I mean, you have, speaking of ones that are in the Zinnia elegans, the more expected species or more common species, you selected from one that people may know, the ‘Peppermint Stick,’ to make one that you call, I think ‘Firestarter?’ Is that right?
Don: Yeah. Well, this started, Frank Morton and I, we had a conversation of, I just asked him like, “Hey, the ‘Peppermint Stick’ is two different colors.” And really three, there’s sort of yellow and red, and then white and red, but there’s also sort of a cream and red in there, which I think is an intermediary one.
Margaret: Yeah, and we should say Frank is a seed farmer, Wild Garden Seed. Yes, yeah.
Don: Yeah, thanks for mentioning that. And he’s definitely a dear friend and mentor of me.
Margaret: And so many.
Don: And an early pioneer.
Margaret: He’s amazing. Yeah.
Don: And yeah, check them out before, I think they’re inching towards retirement, so kind of get it while the getting’s good. But we were joking around. I was like, “Hey, have you ever thought of stabilizing one of the colors?” And he was doing the white and red. So I was like, “Well, I’ll do the yellow and red.”
So, we use greenhouses sometimes if we want to stabilize something that is really attractive to pollinators, with the thinking that we can control pollination a little bit more. So, the ‘Firestarter’ is really just saving seed from the most yellow and red ones.
And I want to mention a really fun thing, and maybe you’ve noticed this in zinnias or other flowers, is that variety in particular tends to produce what are called chimeras. And you can also see jumping genes in action. So, in my selection of that variety, I wait for the first flower to happen, and I only want to save the plants that produce yellow-and-red-striped ones, that literally look like either yellow petals that somebody took a paintbrush and painted a stripe of red on them, or in some way.
So then, I rip out all the ones that are white and red, and then I cut off all the flowers of the yellow-red ones, that first flower, because it could have cross pollinated with the white and red ones. Then, I let them all flower, and what I’ve seen happen is ones that produce all red flowers. And before I learned this, I would cut those off or rip those plants out. But then, I began to notice, like wow, on the same plant, they can produce all red and yellow-and-red-striped. And what that is, is the plant doesn’t distribute growth hormones and its genetic potential equally.
Don: Just like we don’t look like our siblings, even though we technically have the same genetics. And the other thing it’ll do is chimeras, which is, I don’t know if that’s a botanical term or just in the flower trade, one where the flower is basically half red and half another color, like in this instance, red- and yellow-striped. I’ve tried saving seeds from this, but I don’t think chimeras is something that you can pin down genetically. It just has to do with growth hormones and transposons, and how genetic potential is distributed in a given plant depending on environmental stresses.
Margaret: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. So, that’s a fun one, ‘Firestarter.’
Some of yours are these mixes, or you sometimes call them remixes. You have one that you call the ‘Dreamin’ Remix,’ for instance. And that was already a cross of elegans, and haageana.
Margaret: That was already a cross of elegans and haageana, that someone else did, at Peace Seedlings, Dylana Kapuler. So you then look at the population and you keep going, yeah? You might keep going?
Don: Yeah. And this can’t… Maybe you could describe it as a backcross, so it’s a hybrid between those two zinnia species, then backcross to the ‘Cactus Mix,’ and trying to get my goal with that. And I think gardeners like novelty, and I try and be transparent in our catalog to not expect every plant to exhibit the same traits. But you’re bound to, it’s kind of like, I don’t know, Cracker Jacks, you’re going to get a different surprise in every box or something.
That my goal is to produce one that looks like the ‘Dreamin’ Mix,’ that Dylana took over from her father, Dr. Alan Kapuler, of that cross. And they’ve never disclosed it’s a cross, but I’ve grown enough zinnias where that’s my hunch, because of that trait that you see in the ‘Jazzy Mix’ or the ‘Persian Carpet’ type zinnias.
I want to get one that has that interesting kind of bullseye pattern of different colors on every petal, but with the quilled petal shape of the cactus types. So, we’ll see. There’s no guarantee. I think sometimes when you have a breeding objective, it’s actually counter to the reproductive success of the plant [laughter], and the only way you learn that is through trial and error.
Margaret: Yeah. I love the name of one that you have your offering that you bred, you call it ‘Crazy Legs’ [above]. Tell us about ‘Crazy Legs,’ speaking of this sort of cactusy…
Don: Well, so that started by growing large amounts of the ‘Cactus Mix,’ which has a quilled petal shape, which the botanical term would either be revolute, like rolled outwards on itself, or rolled inwards on itself (which is involute).
And I began to notice ones that had these other traits. One actually has a botanical name called fimbriated, where the petals don’t end at a tidy point, but are more splayed out.
And then I noticed one where the petals themselves, instead of growing straight, were sort of squiggled. And my initial breeder’s name for that was Frippertronics, after Robert Fripp, who was the guitarist for the kind of ’60s, ’70s progressive rock band King Crimson. But my seed staff, who are all under 40 was like, “No, that doesn’t work.”
Margaret: “No, Grandpa.” They said, “No. Grandpa.” Right? [Laughter.]
Don: Yeah, totally. Well, and I take these surveying ribbons and I write with a Sharpie on there just so I can keep track of all this stuff. So, I was like, “O.K., you’re going to be Frippertronic,” because he invented the first electronic tape-loop music, just something novel. So, ‘Crazy Legs’ was a more descriptive name. ‘Crazy Legs’ is a fuchsia one. I have cream-colored version in development and an orange one in development and a yellow one. But those aren’t stabilized yet.
Margaret: Well, they’re fun and wild as is your one I mentioned before, the one that sort of looks like undersea anemones, the ‘Tidepool Mix.’
Margaret: So, before we take up all the time with zinnias, I want to just ask you about what else are you excited about at the moment? Because it sounds like you’re still playing with zinnias. Are there other things that you’re…
Don: Well, every year we pick three or four things to do variety trials on, and that allows us here on the farm to really use the farm not just for seed production, but also as a research and development facility. So, the ones we’re doing for that this year are radicchios, because there’s a whole trend starting there and we just want to learn as much as we can to grow as much diversity. And then we will offer that mix as a seed crop for 2025, which feels weird to say that.
And then, we’re also doing carrots, but similar to zinnias, not many people grow China asters, but they’re just as easy to grow and I think just as spectacular. And I think it could be one of the next big things for home gardeners and small-scale farmer-florists.
Margaret: I think those are, what Callistephus, is that the genus? Callistephus, I think.
Margaret: Yeah. And they’re beautiful flowers. And speaking of things that can come in different flower forms, they can look like a big double chrysanthemum [below, ‘Tower Chamois’ China aster] or they can look airy and, I don’t even know how to say with just, I don’t know, just so effusive, some of them.
Margaret: So they really, they can be quite different.
Don: Yeah. And I’m just now thinking they would make an excellent companion, like some cool variant mix with the ‘Tidepool Mix’ zinnia. And maybe for some future Octopus’ Garden collection or something.
Margaret: Oh, I love that. The Octopus’s Garden collection. Yeah, lots of tentacles [laughter].
Margaret: ‘Crazy Legs.’ Lots of ‘Crazy Legs.’ Yeah. Good. O.K. So, those are three things: radicchio, carrots, China asters.
Don: Yeah. And then, another thing kind of, similar to the zinnias that I’ve been working on, is a striped kernel sweet corn that I call ‘Starburst Select.’ And you see this trait in flour corn, some Native communities call it chin-mark corn, named after the cultural tradition of tattooing women in some of the Northwest tribes. But basically, at the stage of eating, I have this variety in development that is a sweet corn, and when you eat it, each kernel looks like somebody took a small paintbrush and drew a little starburst of red on it.
And I’m 85 percent of the way there of having a variety that, as far as I know, has never existed before, and I don’t know why, because it wasn’t that hard to create. So, that’s exciting. And we offer seed of that. We always sell out. It’s very limited quantity right now.
Margaret: Huh. Interesting. You’ve done a lot over the years with flour corns, the ones as in you would make meal or flour out of them, not flower corns.
Margaret: Very colorful, some of them have been very colorful, which are just beautiful as well. And I think it seems like you’ve been adding some medicinal herbs to the catalog as well, yeah?
Don: Yeah. And as a seed company, we have what we’re excited about, but we also have to respond to where the culture is going. And that’s something I’ve noticed a big resurgence in interest in people growing their own medicinal herbs. So I have an employee who has some experience with that, Taryn Hunter, who I’ve really just tasked with figuring out what’s the hot herbs to grow, what should we be either growing. Or we also work with a great company out of Washington called Friends of the Trees Botanicals, and that’s Michael Pilarski who goes by the name Skeeter, who’s one of our permaculture elders here in the Northwest. And they grow and harvest medicinal herb seed that we offer.
Margaret: Well, a lot of fun choices. As I said, there’s like 1,000 things in your collection and maybe 700 in any given year being offered. I’m so glad to speak to you; I always learn from you, Don, and I hope that we’ll keep the lessons going for more years to come. So, thank you, thank you, and have a good seed-selling season, huh
Don: Thanks so much.
more from don tipping
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Feb. 5, 2024 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts here).