white marigold Kilimanjaro
2009-12-03. The best bloom from the ‘Kilimanjaro’ white marigold.’ It opens very yellow green and hasn’t turned white yet.

December 3rd, 2009
Tagetes erecta 'Kilimanjaro' (white marigold)

I love white flowers. In the heat of summer, they look so crisp and refreshing like wealthy women who never sweat in their white gloves and linen dresses. In Austin’s summer, it’s hard to be out in the garden when the sun is. White flowers, which reflect the most light, make wonderful twilight or moonlight gardens.

Marigolds are one of the easiest heat-tolerant annuals available. They are so easy to grow that they are often included on plant lists for children’s gardens. And they make good companion plants in the vegetable garden because the distinctive smell of the leaves throws off the bugs looking for tomatoes and other goodies.

If bluebonnets can come in colors other than blue, can’t marigolds come in colors other than gold? (Clearly the marketing name for screaming orange). I’m not the first gardener to wish for a white marigold. Others have been obsessed by the idea. For over 20 years Burpee offered a $10,000 prize to the breeder of a white marigold. 80,000 people tried for the prize. In 1975 Burpee awarded it to Alice Vonk. They called the new marigold ‘Snowbird’.

Garden History

2009-01-11
Tweeted @MargaretRoach that I always wanted to try white marigolds but that I wasn’t sure about ordering seeds from Burpee.

2009-02-28
Receive a packet o white marigold seeds from Pinetree Garden Seeds a gift from @indygardener who says life is too short not to try what you want to try.

Seed packet description: Vanilla white 2″ flowers on 18″ tall plant.

2009-03-20
Plant the marigold seeds in a flat of 2″x2″ cells.

2009-03-24
Marigold seeds sprout. (4 days). Almost every seed sprouted.

2009-04-19
Plant out 9 marigold plants. Out of 24 which sprouted, 15 damped off. I plant these marigold in prime garden real estate next to my tomatoes. This raised bed is filled with bought soil from the Natural Gardener and gets a lot of sunlight with some afternoon shade. Because I water the tomatoes every day, I’m reminded to water the marigolds.

2009-04-23
Pillbugs eat 2 of the marigold plants, leaving 7.

In May, we go to San Francisco for several days. When we return, only 5 plants have survived the heat without being watered. In September, we are gone for another week and on our return only 2 plants have survived. In the drenching rains that follow the penultimate plant dies, leaving a lone survivor. It is about 20 inches tall but has fallen on its side. Along the horizontal stem, new growth and buds spring. But the buds never seem to open.
white marigold Kilimanjaro
2009-12-03. The remaining plant on its side.

2009-11-12
I send @indygardener a photo of a bud I hope will open for GBBD. It doesn’t.

2009-11-23
The first bud which has almost formed a flower opens, although some petals are dwarfed or missing. It is not a clear white or even pale ivory (or vanilla, as the seed packet describes it, which I assume means it is supposed to be a bit yellowish). It is a greenish tint.
white marigold Kilimanjaro
2009-12-03. More than a week later, this first bloom finally looks white.

2009-12-03
The first flower which opened finally looks white. New opening flowers still look greenish yellow. Tomorrow (12/4) a possibility of snow is forecast for Austin and then by Saturday morning we will flirt with our first hard freeze with temperatures around 28°F. So I despite half a dozen buds, I think this is the last day for white marigolds.
white marigold Kilimanjaro
2009-12-03. The remaining buds will probably never get a chance to open.

In Other People’s Gardens

Carol @ May Dreams Gardens (aka @indygardener) also planted some ‘Kilimanjaro’ marigolds.

A contributor to Dave’s Garden had a negative rating for ‘Kilimanjaro’. Even though she grew them in Madison, WI she experienced many of the same problems I did.

“It is encouraging to find Burpee in 1959 somewhat less preoccupied with chromosomes.” — Katherine S. White.

January 25th, 2009
Burpee Gardening 2009: Seeds, Plants, Supplies

Those people who think of gardening as being its own niche might be surprised at the breadth and depth of passions among gardeners. To outsiders we all may seem to belong to the same tribe; within there’s plenty of lines drawn in the sand: organic-only or herbicides and pesticides; native plants or collections of exotics; productive gardens or strictly ornamentals; design-focused or plant crazy; seed-starters or seedlings-only; the latest greatest hybrids or open-pollinated heirlooms. Not only do we disagree with each other, we frequently disagree with ourselves.

How does a company market to such a diverse audience? Like Katherine S. White and Michael Pollan before me, I love reading seed catalogs not solely to jump-start my dreams of the new gardening season, but to ferret out insights of who we gardeners are and how we see ourselves in this new millennium.

The 2009 edition Burpee catalog is as large and glossy as a magazine: 7 1/2″ x 10 1/2″, 136-pages of full-color photographs. The first 21 pages focus on what’s new for 2009 and recent favorites, both flowers and vegetables: the annual flowers from Abutilon to Zinnia, the perennial flowers from Achillea to Verbascum, a section on grapes and berries, another on starter plants, then summer bulbs, and finally 44 pages of vegetables. For “customers concerned about the uses of any and all kinds of chemicals” there is a one-page list of certified organic seed. This Burpee catalog also includes half a dozen pages of seed-starting and general garden equipment and an index (English names).

The makers of the Burpee catalog firmly believe a photo is worth a thousand words. One thing I like about their use of photos is that the plant name is printed on the photo. (Other catalogs use a letter or number and then you have to search the page to find the corresponding entry.)

However, most plant descriptions are only a few lines long and those lines consist mostly of exclamations. Of flowers: “Intense. Brilliant. A must have. Dazzling. Incredible! Amazingly free-flowering.” Of vegetables: “Sweet! Giant! Giant sweet! Tender.” Did I mention “sweet”?

There are only so many adjectives one can use to describe the flavor of a tomato, for example. So I can forgive some repetition. However, I became very suspicious of their use of red small caps letters announcing “Burpee Exclusive”–especially after I noticed that it was applied to a variety of cosmos I’d just ordered from Select Seeds (at a lesser price to boot).

The Burpee catalog uses icons sparingly: only three representing “full sun, part sun, shade”. The descriptions do include the number of seeds in the packet, the height of the plant, for vegetables, the number of days to maturity, and any awards. The description does not include the botanical name. This immediately disqualifies a catalog in my mind. I’m aware that market research shows that there is a group of American gardeners who are equally put off when botanical names are included. Writers of seed catalogs walk a fine line to try to please everyone. The Burpee folks have an audience in mind and I am not numbered among it.

Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden, tweeted me about another issue that has set many gardeners in the blogosphere against Burpee: its buyout of Heronswood Nursery. I don’t live in the northwest and I’d never heard of Heronswood before the controversy. So it’s not the first thing I think of when I think of Burpee.

If your thing is heirloom or open-pollinated seeds, then Burpee probably isn’t your favorite company. They are hybridizers of the first class. No less than Luther Burbank gave Burpee his endorsement even as Katherine S. White decried their desire to make zinnias look like chrysanthemums or dahlias. Perhaps their most famous endeavor was the search for the white marigold. For over 20 years Burpee offered a $10,000 prize to the breeder of a white marigold and in 1975 awarded it to Alice Vonk.

Katherine S. White didn’t understand why anyone would want a marigold that looked like a chrysanthemum or one that was white. (Some people feel the same thing about maroon bluebonnets or purple cornflowers.) I, however, would love a white marigold. Marigolds are one of those flowers which can take Austin’s hot and humid summers. I generally dislike yellow flowers but I love white flowers. A white marigold is just what I’m looking for.

I have never ordered anything from Burpee before, nor did I buy anything from them this year. I am irritated by their catalog’s lack of botanical names and waiting to see how the Heronswood controversy will play out. But “never say never”. The lure of the white marigold still tempts me.