Johann Gottfried Zinn

Initial Anatomy of the Iris

Today is the birthday of Johann Gottfried Zinn, who was born on this day in 1727.

Zinn died at the age of 32, but he accomplished much in his short life, and he focused on two areas of science: human anatomy and botany.
From an anatomy standpoint, in his early twenties, Zinn wrote an eye anatomy book and became the first person to describe the anatomy of the iris in the human eye. There are several parts of the eye named in his honor, including the Zinn zonule, the Zinn membrane, and the Zinn artery.
It's fitting that Zinn wrote about the iris - which of course, is also the name of a flower - and so there's some charming coincidental connection between his two passions of anatomy and botany.
In Greek mythology, Iris was a beautiful messenger - a one-woman pony express - between the Olympian gods and humans. Iris was the personification of the rainbow. She had golden wings and would travel along the rainbow carrying messages from the gods to mortals.
In the plant world, the iris is a genus with hundreds of species and is represented by the fleur-de-lis.
When Zinn was 26 years old, he became director of the University Botanic Garden in Göttingen (pronounced “Gert-ing-en”). He thought the University was going to put him to work as a professor of anatomy, but that job was filled, and so botany was his second choice. Nonetheless, he threw himself into his work. When Zinn received an envelope of seeds from the German Ambassador to Mexico, he described the blossom in detail, and he published the first botanical illustration of the zinnia. He also shared the seeds with other botanists throughout Europe. Like most botanists in the 1700s, Zinn corresponded with Linnaeus. No doubt Zinn's work as a bright, young garden Director and the fact that he tragically died young from tuberculosis, spurred Linnaeus to name the flower Zinn received from Mexico in his honor.
And so, Zinn lives on in the name Zinnia - a favorite flower of gardeners, and for good reasons: They come in a variety of vivid colors, they can be direct sown into the garden, they attract pollinators like butterflies, and they couldn't be easier to grow.
And, if meditation is something you struggle with, you can still become a Zinn Master, if you enjoy growing Zinnias. 🙂
And, I'd like to think Zinn would be pleased being remembered by the Zinnia because, like the Iris, the Zinnia has a connection to the eyes.
We've all heard the phrase beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well... in the case of the Zinnia, the Aztecs were clearly not a fan. In fact, the Aztecs had a word for zinnia, which basically translated to the evil eye or eyesore. The Aztecs didn't care for the zinnia flower - but don't judge them because it was not the hybridized dazzling version we've grown accustomed to in today's gardens. (You can thank the French for that!) The original plants were weedy-looking with an uninspired, dull purple blossom. This is why the blossom was initially called the crassina, which means "somewhat corse" before Linnaeus changed the name to remember Zinn.
Over time, the gradual transformation of zinnias from eyesores to beauties gave Zinnias the common name Cinderella Flower. And here's a little factoid: the zinnia is Indiana’s state flower. I like to imagine when it came time for Indiana legislators to vote in favor of the zinnia, Zinn was looking down from heaven and smiling as he heard these words: "All in favor of the zinnia, say aye."

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Johann Gottfried Zinn
Johann Gottfried Zinn


  1. Landon on April 3, 2022 at 9:13 am

    “All in favor of the zinnia say aye,” that is brilliant! Made me laugh.

  2. The Daily Gardener on October 4, 2023 at 10:15 pm

    Thanks Landon! 🥰

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