Monthly Archives: March 2015

My Love-Hate Relationship with Mixed Color Flower Seed Packets

downloadAs I’m spending time looking through seed catalogs and starting seeds inside, it seemed like the right time to talk about my mixed feelings about flower seeds that come in mixed colors.

When there’s a named variety of some flower, e.g Profusion Zinnias, you have a choice of buying a packet in a single color like deep apricot or coral pink or buying a packet of seeds that contains a mixture of colors. While a groups of flowers in a single color can be visually impactful, I like mixed colors as well.

But there’s a little problem when you get that mixed color packet of seeds. Sometimes you plant them and when they start to bloom you find that instead of having an even mixture of five or six different colors, most of the plants are one or two colors. Often one or more of the colors that are supposed to be in the packet of seeds are nowhere to be found in your flower bed.

So is the seed company misrepresenting the seeds that it’s selling? No, that’s not the problem. The cause of this often has to do with vigor and selection.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say that there’s a flower called X that in its natural state has red flowers. Over the years, breeders have worked to introduce different colors into the genome of X. After years of breeding, there will still be red flowers but they might also have developed white, pink, and orange flowers.

The odds of genetics are pretty good that each of these colors will have a different degree of vigor. In this example, let’s say that the red and white varieties of X germinate more quickly and establish themselves faster than the pink and orange varieties. The pink and orange varieties of X will still bloom well and be as large as the red and white varieties at maturity, but they just take longer to get started.

In the garden, when you plant a row of X, you’ll plant the seeds and then thin the plants once they start to grow. And when you thin, what plants are you going to keep and which ones will you pull out? I think everyone would keep the bigger, healthier plants and pull out those that are smaller and weaker. Or, if you started the seeds of X inside, when it comes time to separate the seedlings and pot up the ones that you plan to keep, all of us would keep the bigger plants. 

So when X starts to blossom, you’d expect to see red, white, pink and orange flowers, but in this example, it’s almost certain that the bed of X will be red and white with few if any pink or orange plants. The vigor of the red and white and our selection of the biggest and strongest seedlings has led to the elimination of most of the pink and orange flowers.

Now I know that’s a long example but it happens whenever you try growing a mixed color packet of flower seeds. All of the colors are not going to be equally vigorous and if you chose only the biggest seedlings, you’re sure to limit the variety of colors.

That’s why I have a love-hate relationship with mixed color flower seeds! I love the mixed colors, but I hate the fact that when I thin the plants, it’s almost a guarantee that some of the colors will be lost.

Dahlia Seedlings

Dahlia Seedlings

Now if I was really concerned with having all of the colors of a given flower represented in the garden I could buy a single color packet for each of the colors that I wanted, but that would be expensive and very wasteful. So I have another trick. While it doesn’t guarantee that every color in a mixed packet of seeds will be represented, it definitely increases the odds!

I just transplanted some mixed color dahlias that I started inside the house. Some the plants were smaller than others. Since I wasn’t transplanting all of the seedlings (I only wanted 8 plants), I made sure that I chose a few of the smaller seedlings. By doing this, I was making a conscious effort NOT to select for vigor and therefore increasing the chance of having truly mixed color dahlias.

Three Different Amounts of Anthocyanin in Dahlia Seedlings

Three Different Amounts of Anthocyanin in Dahlia Seedlings

I was lucky with these dahlias because some of them exhibited the red pigment anthocyanin in their stems. I was careful to choose some seedlings without anthocyanin (probably yellow or white flowering) and others with varying degrees of the pigment (pink, orange, purple or red). The odds of mixed colors are getting greater!

So when it comes to growing a packet of mixed color flowers, you never know what kind of a mixture of colors you’ll end up with in the garden. But if you make an effort to keep a few of the smaller plants and also take advantage of any pigment differences that you might be able to see, the odds of a truly mixed color bed of flowers increase.

I’ll let you know how the dahlias turn out!


Thanksgiving Cacti – It’s All About the Temperature

cactusA few years ago I wrote a post entitled  Things I Learned About My “Christmas Cactus.”  In that post, I explained how I’d learned that the so-called “Christmas cacti” that you find in stores around the holidays are really Thanksgiving cacti (Schlumbergera truncate).

I also learned that while darkness can make the cactus bloom, temperature is even a stronger force causing this plant to want to reproduce. That made sense given the way that my cacti blossom. I never worry about light and darkness yet they bloom every year.

But right now I have proof that temperature really is a strong factor in getting this plant to blossom.

I have a pot with four different Thanksgiving cacti in it. I have it hanging on a curtain rod in a west-facing window. The plant blossomed well around the holidays and since then, I’ve basically forgotten about it. I’ve watered it when I think of it, but that’s all the care it’s received.

Thanksgiving Cactus - 1/2 in bloom

Thanksgiving Cactus – only on side in bloom

One day when I was watering I was surprised to see that half of the pot was filled with buds while the other half wasn’t. What caused this strange phenomenon? Temperature. The half of the pot with buds was the part closest to the window. We’ve had a cold winter so those stems have been kept very cool, especially at night. The part of the pot that had no buds was the side facing the room.

The other interesting thing is that whatever factors cause the cactus to bloom, they appear to stay localized. Branches of a cactus that were close to the window are blooming while other branches of the same plant that were facing the room aren’t blooming. That seems to show that whatever causes the plant to bloom isn’t some chemical that translocates throughout the plant. Instead, the factors that cause the plant to bloom only affect the areas that are exposed to the cooler temperatures.

While days are getting longer and the intensity of sunlight is increasing, the cool temperatures close to the window were enough to get this cactus to re-bloom – well, at least half of it. I will admit it’s a little strange to see a pot with only half in bloom but it just goes to show that when it comes to getting Thanksgiving cacti to bloom, temperature trumps all!