Monday, August 22, 2016

A flower friend returns

There's a flower in my garden that hasn't been there for several years. It's an orange-colored cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus, a bright-faced beauty that blooms prolifically, stands tall and grows broadly when sown in a sunny spot.

A Gulf fritillary butterfly sips nectar from an orange cosmos bloom

I first discovered this floral wonder shortly after relocating to Florida in the late 1980s. I noticed it growing in a neighbor's yard when I lived in Kissimmee, and although I didn't know the homeowner, her gardens drew me in. I knocked on the door to say how much I admired the yard, especially the orange flowers that filled her beds. We spent a while talking, and by the time I left, I had a new friend and a handful of seeds — half-inch-long, brownish-black spikes from the orange flowers we both appreciated.

Those few seeds began three decades of blooms although there have been long periods when I've been lax at cultivating seeds. I recently came out of such a period, found new seeds and spread them about liberally in two different garden beds. Cosmos sulphureus is considered a hardy annual but in Florida it performs more like a perennial because it is such a prolific seed producer and effective self-sower.

Once each bright-colored, multi-petaled, two-inch wide flower fades, numerous seeds develop from the spent bloom. The seeds, protected by a hard-hulled case, eventually fall to the ground where they patiently await proper germination conditions.

Orange cosmos does best in a well-drained sunny spot with rich soil, but it can also survive less ideal locations. Seeds that land in a shaded, dry flower bed with typical Florida soil produce 12- to 18-inch tall plants with thin stalks and sparse blooms. However, the same seeds sown in a sunny spot with soil rich and organic matter will practically leap out of the ground with joy as they yield taller, thicker-stemmed plants with more branches and a profusion of saffron-colored blooms.

Orange cosmos by bamboo leaning out toward the sun

It's a profusion of bright, sunny faces that thrills me so much about this plant. Each morning when I look out my kitchen window, I'm greeted by a garden aglow with floral smiles as butterflies sip nectar from the blooms. Standing just about head height, each plant's main stalk is thicker than my big toe with multiple branches extending from every side covered with orange-petaled beauties.

My cosmos have grown unusually large this year because I've gone a little crazy adding multiple layers of grass clippings gathered after each mowing. I've always liked grass clipping mulch because it is so readily available, easy to collect and well-suited to careful mulching of even the tiniest, most delicate sprouts. It makes an attractive, dense mat that helps keep weeds at bay. As the clippings decompose, they release nitrogen into the soil, which stimulates vigorous plant growth. It is important to only use grass clippings untreated with herbicides to prevent harming mulched plants.

A profusion of blooms

Unusually vigorous plant growth is what I've achieved this year with my orange flowers — maybe too vigorous. I've had to stake some cosmos plants with bamboo poles because their relatively shallow root systems are unable to support such tall, multi-branched plants. However, even falling over doesn't stop cosmos from blooming. It simply continues to spread happiness from it spot on the ground.

For other people, cosmos sulphureus might be just another easy-to-grow, attractive addition to the garden. But for me, this simple bloomer represents more. It's a reminder of being a newcomer to Florida and discovering new plants and people who share my passion for natural beauty. Each seed sown carries with it memories spanning a period of 30 years.

I've picked many a bouquet during those years and some of my favorites have included orange cosmos blooms. To me cosmos sulphureus is more than just a flower. It's an old friend that has come back to visit, put down roots and will hopefully be a garden fixture for many years to come.

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