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Old-fashioned cosmos are breathtaking along Georgia highways By Norman Winter

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is teaching all of us about an old floral favorite that needs to be brought back to the garden: cosmos. I see them along Interstate 16 starting around mile marker 98 going north, and the “naturescape,” if you will, is amazing.

If you have ever wondered, “Do those specialty license plates pay off?” The answer is yes, and of course, on display. What is even more exciting is that the future is bright for these types of floral plantings. GDOT is revved up on planting pollinators along the highway system, and this should have everyone doing the happy dance.

Oddly, this is coinciding with the best butterfly year I have ever seen at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm in Savannah, Georgia. Here we are in early November and the butterflies are uncountable and bees are everywhere. So while some may be stirring the pot for gloom and doom, it is exciting in Georgia.

But let’s go back to the cosmos. Should you somehow be thinking that I am referring to orange cosmos, I am instead touting the Cosmos bipinnatus. This cosmos is native to Mexico and is related to coreopsis and rudbeckias. It is the quintessential cottage garden flower and brings in the pollinators.

It is so good that the University of Georgia has put them in their promotional seed packs labeled the “Pollinator Blend.” The pack states the “pollinators will make a beeline to your garden when you plant this beautiful flower mix.”

These cosmos have daisy-like flowers 2 to 4 inches wide in shades of burgundy, pink, lilac and white with orange centers, and they are borne on stems of airy, fern-like foliage for weeks on end during the growing season. As GDOT and UGA would testify, these are easy to grow from seed. In fact, they are so easy to grow from seed, you can sow successive plantings to have blooms the entire growing season, especially if you want to have a bounty of flowers for the vase too.

While those in Georgia are still enjoying the blooms, almost everyone will be planting next spring. You might get lucky and find nursery plants, but seeds seem to be readily available. Plant your seeds or nursery-grown transplants into loose, well-drained soil. Fertility need not be high for this Mexico native. Seeds germinate in five to seven days with blooms, bees and butterflies in eight to 10 weeks. Thin the seedlings or space transplants 12 to 36 inches apart depending on your variety.

Yes, there are varieties like the 1936 All-America Selections Award Winner ‘Sensation’ that tops out in the 4- to 5-foot range. I promise you’ll love it like they did 80 years ago. But if you are into the more diminutive cosmos, then you might want to try the 2-foot-tall ‘Sonata,’ which was a Fleuroselect Award Winner. There are plenty of others to try as well.

Although considered an annual, the cosmos gives a perennial-like performance by reseeding, which is perfect for the highway system and your pollinator garden too. These are tough plants, so water sparingly but when you do, water deeply, training those roots to go deep. Your volunteer seedlings may look a little different than what you originally planted when it comes to height, but they will nonetheless be dazzling.

Our promotional UGA Pollinator Blend seed packet has purple coneflowers, coreopsis, rudbeckias, liatris and salvias, which should make any bee, butterfly or hummingbird ecstatic. To me, the only other prerequisite might be a white picket fence. That is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it would sure set up a nice photo.

If GDOT can have success with cosmos, you can too. I hope you’ll give them a try next spring.

Follow me on Facebook under “Norman Winter ‘The Garden Guy.’” Learn more about the gardens at www.coastalgeorgiabg.org/.

(Norman Winter is the director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm in Savannah, Georgia.)

Cosmos
Cosmos

Georgia highways dazzle with color from old-fashioned cosmos. These flowers aren't perennials, but they do come back through reseeding.

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Georgia highways dazzle with color from old-fashioned cosmos. These flowers aren't perennials, but they do come back through reseeding. Download Image
Sonata
Sonata

Sonata is a compact choice in cosmos as it grows to just 2 feet tall. Gardeners who like taller flowers should select Sensation cosmos, a 1938 All-America Selections Winner that reaches 4 to 5 feet in height.

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