"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Discovering Cosmos

From “Cosmos” in The English Flower Garden by William Robinson:

“Cosmos: Mexican plants allied to the Dahlia….

C. bipinnatus is a handsome annual, 3 feet to 5 feet high, having finely-divided, feathery foliage, and large Dahlia-like bright red-purple blossoms, with yellow centres. It is best raised a tender annual by sowing the seeds in February or March in a heated frame, and transplanting in May in good, rich soil with a warm exposure….

“It flowers from August to October, is good for grouping with bold and graceful annuals. There are now varieties rose, white, purple, and orange.
C. atropurpurea, called the ‘Black Dahlia,’ is a handsome plant with nearly black flowers, thriving in ordinary soil.”

From “All Around the World” in The Origin of Plants by Maggie-Campbell Culver:

“From Mexico in 1799 came two near relations of the Dahlia: Cosmos bipinnatus (with leaves arranged like a feather) and C. sulphureus…. The seed had first arrived in Spain, and as with the Zinnia had been sent to England by the Marchioness of Bute. A further pair crossed the Atlantic in 1835, C. diversifolius and one that shows how simple it is for plants to drift away out of fashion and out of nursery catalogues unless they are continually loved and nurtured: C. atrosanguineus, the deliciously chocolate-scented dark maroon annual from Mexico….

“The seed was received in 1835 by William Thompson (1823-1903), who had earlier founded a nursery at Ipswich (which later became the world-famous firm of Thompson and Morgan). The plant made an immediate impact, with its dramatic deep maroon colour, and was widely grown, but despite being admired — and commented on by such plantsmen as E. A. Bowles (1865-1954) — and receiving an RHS Award of Merit in 1938, it fell out of favour. It was only at the very end of the twentieth century that it was ‘rescued’ and recovered its self-esteem to flourish again in our English gardens.”

From “The Cosmos Flower” by Kishiko Wakayama in An Anthology of Japanese Poems, translated by Asataro Miyamori:

Oh, that I,
     In my demeanour,
Might be like the modest single-petalled
     Cosmos flower!


Here we have nineteen photos of three varieties of an annual flowering plant called Cosmos, which I stumbled upon while photographing zinnias and asters this fall at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. It fascinates me that despite making so many photo-trips to these gardens over several years now, there are still discoveries to be made — as I’d never seen these Cosmos before, yet they were just a few feet from spots I’ve stomped around in repeatedly.

There were only a handful of Cosmos plants blooming in a plot of short grass by themselves (so I photographed all of them), though empty stems nearby suggested I might have discovered them at the end of their flowering time. Having now learned a little about this plant, its history, and some of its varieties — briefly covered by the quotation from The Origin of Plants up-top — I’m curious about whether or not the “Black Dahlia” variant (Cosmos atrosanguineus, originally Cosmos atropurpurea) might have been blooming there earlier. I’ll have to try again next year, since the plants have done their late fall disappearing act (as plants do!) — but click here if you would like to see some images of the “Black Dahlia” Cosmos from around the web.

Cosmos is in the Aster family Asteraceae, and these have the typical composite structure of individual florets and tiny seeds. The white and orange varieties look like they’d already ejected seeds from their florets, leaving some of them to look like miniature flying buttresses. Whether those seeds generate another batch of Cosmos next year remains to be seen: it’s not unusual for plants considered annuals in the Southeast to behave more like perennials if we have a mild winter.

In the photos of the purple Cosmos and in the last three photos of the orange ones, you can see their thin, delicate stems and leaves, some as thin as pieces of string or as wispy as ferns — “feathery” as described in the quotations above. The slightest breeze — and some photo-bombing wasps hunting for pollen — sent the flowers bouncing like acrobats, delightful to watch but requiring some patience to photograph. And one of the wasps seemed to match its colors to the orange flowers — so I didn’t realize it was there until the very last stages of working on these photos. See if you can find it!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!