Most of you will be familiar with the attractive, hardy zinnia flowers. These have waxed and waned in popularity as garden flowers over the years and, nowadays, are available in a variety of shades and sizes. When I travelled by train during my student years, I often saw tiny reddish zinnias growing alongside the railway tracks between what was then Natal and the Eastern Transvaal (now KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga). They also grew along the verges of some of the dirt roads we travelled along. My mother used to call them ‘railway zinnias’ and believed that, if left to their own devices, all zinnias would revert to this scraggly form.
They are typically the rusty to brick-red you can see in the photograph, although I have also seen them a sort of dusty maroon colour. You might ask, as there is nothing particularly spectacular about them, why I have bothered to photograph them. They are weeds with a history: originating in South and Central America, these Redstar Zinnias (Zinnia peruviana) have been naturalised in South Africa for over a century – perhaps they too came over in the fodder imported by the British for their horses during the Anglo-Boer War, or they might have been brought here as garden flowers. According to Common Weeds in South Africa by Mayda Henderson and Johan G. Anderson, it is not regarded as a particularly troublesome weed. Being a pioneer plant, it is usually found on waste land and growing in disturbed areas such as heaps of rubble or rubbish.