Cosmos sp.

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that red columbine (Aquilegia formosa), a native wildflower, is now extensively cultivated in home gardens. That reminded me of a recent incident where the reverse puzzled Leonard and I for a while – a situation where a domestic plant is now established in the wild.

While walking in the Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA)  Leonard and I found a beautiful orange flower amid the sagebrush and grasses. It was the first time we ever saw that plant in one of our favorite hiking spots. There were about ten plants, literally in the middle of nowhere. I kept saying, “I know that plant,” but could not put a name to it.

When Leonard and I returned home I hit the wildflower guides to no avail. But I still had a feeling I knew the plant. A few days later Leonard was watching a TV special on Fort Vancouver in Washington State. He called me to see a plant in the landscaping around the fort because it looked like our unknown specimen. I immediately recognized the Ash Creek flower as a cosmos. Here was a domesticated species that escaped and became naturalized. I was thinking “wildflower”  and my mind did not allow me to think of a domesticated flower.

Cosmos are native to tropical America, particularly Mexico. The early Spanish padres are known to have  grown cosmos in the California missions. However, they did not become popular as garden plants until the early 1900s when horticulturists began to hybridize them.

Cosmos are very easy to grow and need little care. They resist drought, thrive in poor soils and are sun loving – perfect plants for the habitat in the Ash Creek Wildlife Area. As a perennial  (some are annuals) cosmos can continue to survive year after year. How did those cosmos end up in the wildlife area? We will never know, but most likely birds or other animals carried the seeds. Years ago there were homesteads in the vicinity and these cosmos might be remnants from early, long departed settlers. Or perhaps the wind played a factor in planting these lovely orange flowers.

Calflora reports that several cosmos species have escaped domestication and are now well established in about five Southern California counties. Many other cultivated plants have escaped gardens and are now established as wildflowers or are considered noxious weeds (baby’s breath and Scotch thistle are two examples of damaging escapees). Of course wildflower guides would not identify domesticated plants that are not often found in the wild. Since these cosmos are not considered wildflowers, I did not bother to identify them beyond genus.

Plants are opportunistic! Additionally, I need to remember that not all plants growing in remote locations are necessarily undomesticated.

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