Thursday, January 14, 2010

Unpredictable results

What's wrong with this photo? Well, whatever its aesthetic faults I don't expect any of you to come up with the answer I have in mind. What's wrong with this photo is that there are no white flowers here. I wanted at least some white ones, and more yellowy yellow ones for that matter. And definitely no pink ones. That's what I get for growing plants from saved seeds. Oh, well, it looks quite nice and the whole thing has been fun to do, and it does serve as a reminder that there really isn't anything to match the unpredictability of growing plants from seeds. There's always the chance of a big surprise!

Here's the scene this morning. Zinnias. Mostly orange, some sort-of yellow, and just a few in musk-stick pink.

This is what I was hoping for, and didn't get. Last year's white zinnias were so pretty. Look closely at the centre of each bloom and it looks like a gaggle of micro frangipanis. So last year I decided to save some seed heads from my white, yellow and orange Zinnia angustifolias and raise them from seed for another summer show. Compared to the other, more common, types of zinnias which are almost 1m tall and usually in lurid pinks that would be very at home in Las Vegas, these smaller, lower, wide-spreading zinnias only get to about 40cm tall, spread 60cm wide and come in white, yellow, orange and a not-so-outrageous pink. They're harder to find in garden centres so that's partly why I decided to save the seeds. The other reason was simple gardener's curiosity.

Late last autumn I snipped off the faded flower heads and popped them into paper bags, which then spent the winter hanging up in my shed.

I labelled each bag white, yellow or orange, and then in spring it was time to harvest the seeds. There were hundreds of them, dark, flattened spearhead shapes.

I didn't really need to label the bags. A dried orange flower.

And a dried white flower.

You can see the seeds quite clearly here.

In they went into punnets of seed-raising mix in late September, where my nifty, cheap mini greenhouses protected them from any spring chills overnight.

The seed germination rates weren't that great, about 50% at best, but I did get babies in all colours after about two weeks.

Then, another five or so weeks later, the seedlings went in, spaced about 35cm apart.

As each plant came into bud and then into bloom, I initially was delighted that the whole 'growing from seed' thing seemed to have worked so well. But soon after that it was becoming obvious that I could have any colour I liked, as long as it was a tone of orange.

No white ones! And then when I saw this pink interloper come up to wink at me, that was it. I want a recount Mother Nature! Where's my white ones? Ain't seeds unfair?

Well, not really. The truth is that seeds are magnificent. Thank goodness it was only a few months ago that I had read Michael Pollan's wonderful book, 'The Botany of Desire' and in particular his chapter on apples and Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman). I always wondered if I would get what I hoped for with my zinnias, but deep down I knew it was no certainty.

Ever since I read that chapter on Johnny Appleseed I knew that seeds are genetically programmed to be both predictable and unpredictable at the same time. It's how plants survive in nature – by not being totally predictable. Sometimes it might just be the oddballs which are the ones to do best and make it through hard times. So, from my little experience I suppose that oranges and yellows are the dominant colours with my zinnias, and the whites and pinks are the chance occurrences that I can't rely on, but shouldn't be surprised to see at any time.

PS: if you can, please find time to read Michael Pollan's book, or at least that chapter on apples. The essence of the story is that Johnny Appleseed grew his many thousands of apple trees from European apple tree seeds, and it was these seeds' ability to occasionally mutate and surprise, to throw out completely new varieties of apples, which then led to the development of several new and wonderful North American apple varieties perfectly suited – or at least compared with the old European varieties, much better suited – to the climate and soil of the New World.


prue said...

White or not white, those are some lovely blooms!

everydayG said...

I'd love a garden full of your rejects... They're a lovely flower.

Green thumb said...

I will definitely try lo lay my hands on the book, it sounds interesting. It has been the human nature to experiment which is responsible for most of the wonderful things around.

Annanas said...

The flowers are great and they're a perfect example of what happens to recessive genes when they get mixed with dominant genes. In most plants white is recessive. But the seeds they produce this year have a chance of producing white flowers! So don't give up growing your own seeds!

Michelle said...

The pink ones aren't really all that bad, but they do clash with the orange. Too bad about the white ones, they were lovely. I agree about Michael Pollan's book, a fascinating read.

patientgardener said...

I suspect that the originals had crosss pollinated with each other and the stronger colours won. I love growing plants from seeds but have never succeeded with zinnias - I think it is too cool and damp here. Yours, even without white ones, looklovely

Jamie said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. And yes, I agree, even without white ones they do look lovely. It's just that when you have built up expectations and the results fall short, you're never going to be totally delighted!

And Helen, I believe most zinnias are natives of Mexico, and so getting them going in Worcestershire would be quite a feat.

Vicki S said...

What a lovely progression - from seeds, to seedlings and into gorgeous plants. Lovely.