"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Zinnias and Fritillaries

Zinnias and Fritillaries

From “Zinnia (Asteraceae)” in Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants In Your Garden by Noel Kingsbury:

“Named after 18th-century German botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn, the genus includes 17 species, all found from the southern United States into South America, with the most diversity in Mexico. Zinnia species are found in open, often dry habitats. Their rapid growth and short lifespan (annual or short-lived non-clonal subshrubs) illustrate a stress-avoiding nature in harsh environments. Zinnia grandiflora is used in herbal medicine by several Native American communities in Mexico.

“The plants were grown by the Aztecs, and introduced into Europe by the Spanish in the late 18th century. A range of colours was known from early on, probably a legacy of Aztec breeding. Ancestral species vary in colour —
Zinnia elegans is purple, Z. peruviana red-orange, Z. angustifolia and Z. grandiflora yellow. One of the strong points of the plants as ornamentals is the ability to get vivid purple, pink, yellow, and orange, all from the same seed packet. They were very popular in the 19th century, suffered something of a decline in the late 20th, and now seem to be on the way up once again.”

From “Agraulis Vanillae” in Butterflies by Quantum Publishing/Oceana Books:

“This butterfly is bright orange with tadpolelike streaks of black throughout. There are three black-encircled white dots on the edge of the forewing. The underside is brown, orange at the base of the forewing, and both wings have elongated, iridescent silver spots. Males patrol for females, who lay eggs on many parts of the host plant….

“The Gulf Fritillary is often seen in flight over the Gulf of Mexico at some distance from any land. They fly throughout the year in south Florida and south Texas, and January to November in the North…. They inhabit pastures, open fields, second-growth subtropical forests and edges, and also city gardens.”


A couple of years ago, I posted a few photographs of some of the flowers shown below, three of which included some lovely orange butterflies. At the time, I didn’t know that the flowers were zinnias and simply called them “wildflowers” (see Ten Wildflowers and Three Butterflies), nor did I know (but learned from a comment on that post by Butterflies to Dragsters) the word “fritillary.” These days, I’m much more accustomed to trying to identify the correct names of plants and flowers using PlantNet; and I think I’ve accurately identified the butterflies in these new photos as Gulf Fritillaries — which have an affinity for zinnias and are very common in the southern and southeastern United States. The trio of white spots with black borders on each wing give them away.

The first image below shows one of the clusters of zinnias growing at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens, those zinnias having expanded their territory quite a bit since the last time I photographed them. They thrive in a section of the gardens called Greenhouse Valley that’s located near the center of the property, part of which you can see from one of my autumn photographs from 2019. It’s one of the most delightfully appointed sections of the gardens, where you walk down a hilly, winding pathway from the shadows of trees into the sun, and are suddenly immersed in a fascinating group of architectural structures and plant varieties that give it a distinct appearance.

There was lots of light, very little breeze, and temperatures were in the 70s on the day I took these photos — and the fritillaries were plentiful in these weather conditions. At one point, I counted 20 of them flitting (or should I say “fritting”!?!) among the zinnias, each one showing a distinct preference for the larger red-orange zinnias (Z. peruviana), and spending a lot of time on the flowers enjoying their little drinks. They were all unfazed by my presence — some even briefly landed on the end of my lens — which gave me extra opportunities to concentrate on a few of them and get some decent photos. Their preference for the larger zinnias made things a little easier: I typically focused on and set exposure for one of the flower buds, then just waited until a butterfly landed. It was definitely one of those times when nature photography seemed to synchronize nature and photography into a pleasant, relaxing, and even transcendent experience.

I took this series of photos on September 25, then found the quotation from Garden Flora above, where the author states that zinnias may come in purple, pink, yellow, red, and orange; and the Wikipedia article that lists white, chartreuse, yellow, orange, red, purple, and lilac as zinnia colors. ‘Twas only then that I realized that I had taken photos of just the orange/red zinnias, because there is an ongoing construction project at the gardens to repair drainage culverts and repave roads, and many of the zinnias were inaccessible. I went back yesterday, and found that the rest of the zinnia section had reopened, so I’ll have more new photos of these multi-colored beauties (accompanied by some things I’ve learned about zinnias) in several upcoming posts.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


    1. Dale

      Thanks! At first I thought the similar colors would blend the flowers and butterflies together too much, but reducing some of the red in the flowers made for some very nice contrasting colors.

      Thanks for commenting!

  1. Tim Lamb

    Awww, the Zinnia —- my favorite flower with all of the great powder colors, but your photos with the butterfly is once again outstanding. You have such an eye for capturing the simplicity of something we all see every day — but never make the time to stop and really admire. Thanks! Very Pretty!

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