Sunday, September 2, 2007

Prolific wildflower has beauty of cosmos


(First appeared in the Sentinel September 2, 2007)

What is it about wildflowers that makes them so alluring?

Is it their hardiness and tenacity, their practicality or unpretentiousness? Whatever it is, these dwellers of roadside ditches, sidewalk cracks and untamed fields are special.

Wildflowers are take-charge plants with a perpetually positive can-do attitude. No half-heartedness for these bright bloomers. Wildflowers are nothing if not willful. They have one job to do and they do it with passion -- self-propagate.

About 20 years ago I drove by a yard flush with orange-hued flowers. My reaction was immediate and intense: I wanted some.

Not only was I awe-struck by the beauty of these bright-faced bloomers, but I also was bowled over by the informality of the floral-strewn lawn. The yard had a casual, no-fuss look -- the exact effect I was seeking for my own landscape.

Unable to rein in my enthusiasm, I knocked at the homeowner's door to proclaim my appreciation of and admiration for the yard. I was rewarded with smiles and a handful of seeds to take home and plant in my own fertile ground.

One thing about wildflowers, they are designed to survive.

The seeds of these particular plants look like thin brown spikes. Stiff and pointy and about half an inch long, they are perfectly suited for transportation by wind, water or the fur of a passing animal. But I made it effortless for these purveyors of future life to grow. I tossed the seeds onto rich organic soil and kept the ground moist.

Without any further encouragement, every seed I was given germinated.

Within days, multiple sprouts had emerged. Once begun, there was no stopping them -- not that I wanted to. Less than a month after being haphazardly sown, my yard yielded an eye-popping display of blossoms.

At the time, I had no idea what the flowers were called. The blooms looked similar to cosmos, but they were bright orange. Cosmos blossoms are typically white and shades of pink. Where cosmos leaves are lacy and delicate, these flowers' leaves were long with narrow lobes. The leaves, as well as the flower hue, bore more of a resemblance to marigolds, but the flower face didn't.

Responding with the witty inventiveness writers are famous for, I labeled them: orange flowers.

For years afterward, orange flowers dominated my (then) Kissimmee landscape.

Fast forward to 1992.

Our family moved to a location about an hour north of Kissimmee. Recalling my earlier germination success, I gathered a bucket of orange-flower seeds and took them with me.

With the exception of a few trees, our new property's landscape was barren. Years of citrus farming and mining for peat by previous landowners had left the ground devoid of most nutrients. Eager to correct the situation, we began an aggressive campaign of soil augmentation. As a result of our ambitious efforts, we had lovely pockets of humus, soil rich enough to support a variety of large and small plants.

It took many years to fully enhance the soil. During much of that time, I was too busy rearing children and working or too tired from rearing children and working to do much gardening.

The bucket of seeds I had saved from our Kissimmee garden sat on top of the spare refrigerator in the garage for years. Many years. By the time I finally got around to sowing them, the seeds were no longer viable. Not a single one sprouted.

Even wildflowers have their limitations.

It wasn't until this year that my son Timothy reintroduced orange flowers into the landscape. During the 20 years since I first discovered them, my favorite wildflower had become domesticated. Timmy found the plants not by a roadside or in someone's flowerbed, but at a garden center. They were even labeled with an official moniker: Cosmos sulphureus.

Thanks to Timmy, my garden is once again flush with flowers. Placed in combination with purple Mexican petunias (Ruellia brittoniana), my orange cosmos make eye-catching maintenance-free foundation plantings.

As they did in Kissimmee, these vigorous bloomers thrive on neglect. They grow. They flower. They self-seed. The cycle is repeated with or without human intervention. Of course, with a little extra attention -- mulching with grass clippings, the addition of compost to the soil and the occasional deadheading of spent blossoms -- they do even better.

Sometimes it takes a bit of absence to appreciate something special. My garden was without orange flowers for 16 years, long enough for me to truly treasure their reappearance.

Now that they're back, I don't ever want to be without them again. Considering the powerful urge of wildflowers to self-propagate, I doubt if that will happen. I hope these willful wonders will be an essential element of my landscape for many years to come.

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