Monday, August 15, 2011

Simple orange flowers ask little, give much

The gulf fritillary is one of the many butterflies attracted to orange cosmos

Simply Living
August 14, 2011

Its proper name is "Cosmos sulphureus," but I've always called it "orange flower." This unpretentious, hardy wildflower is one of my favorite blooms.

When I lived in Kissimmee, my yard overflowed with orange flowers. My first plants were a gift from a generous stranger, a gardener whose flower beds I had stopped to admire. She gave me seeds that I brought home and sowed. Most of the seeds sprouted, growing into tall, broad butterfly-attracting blooms.

Orange flowers do best when planted in a light, rich soil in sunny locations. Although tolerant of poorer soil and dry conditions, the plants grow larger and bloom more profusely when grown in enriched, irrigated soil.

Although the soil around my Kissimmee home was initially poor, I lived in a community of well-maintained lawns where neighbors were constantly mowing, raking and bagging clippings of St. Augustine grass. Since I knew how fast grass clippings break down, I made it a point to collect those bags as soon as my neighbors could place them by the curbside so I could dump them in my garden beds. With so many applications of free, biodegradable grass-blade mulch, the soil was soon rich enough to support a profusion of plants, including orange flowers galore.

Fast-forward two decades, and orange flowers no longer had a place in my garden. At some point, perhaps during a move, I had lost my saved seeds. Although I grew other flowers, I missed the orange ones that had always bloomed so consistently and profusely. Determined to correct the situation, I went on a wildflower hunt, searching neighborhoods in the Clermont area where they might grow. I found one such yard in Greater Hills, just down the street from one of my rental homes.

Once again, I knocked on a stranger's door. The lady who answered listened to my story and, like her counterpart in Kissimmee, was happy to provide me with seeds. It took only a few minutes to gather a small container of the black, quarter-inch-long spikes. I took them home to sprinkle on the flower beds, but I didn't plant them right away. Remembering how well they responded in Kissimmee to grass-clipping-enriched soil, I did some prep work. I mowed our yard, raked the clippings and deposited them in the garden bed before sprinkling the seeds on the soft, nitrogen-rich blades. As the seedlings grew, I kept adding grass clippings as mulch.

The young plants responded to my attentive care by growing quickly. They got taller, their stems grew broader, and soon bright, friendly orange flower faces appeared.Bees and butterflies arrived, landing on the blooms to gather nectar and pollen. When the flowers faded, seeds developed, and when the seeds matured, they fell down and sprouted soft mulch. Just as the orange flowers did in Kissimmee, the plants thrived in the enriched soil.

I love many things about this simple bloom native to Mexico. It is unassuming, pretty and cheerful. It attracts wildlife, reseeds readily and resists pests. It also makes great cut flowers and is one of the best blooms to use in pressed flower arrangements.

With so much going for it, it's hard to believe I went without this lovely plant for so many years. Fortunately, we've reconnected and have what I consider a reciprocal relationship. I provide the plants with good soil, water and mulch. They return the favor by being butterfly magnets for my yard and by filling my vases with saffron-colored blooms.

After a long hiatus, orange flowers are back in my life as a botanic expression of beauty, simplicity and the splendor of nature. Some relationships are too special to end.

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