Plant Study: Cosmos


Cosmos Cosmos bipinnatus
Mexican aster, garden cosmos

A Plant Study by Patricia Leslie
Participant, 2005 FES Practitioner Training

(The following is an edited version of the original study. Used by permission of the author.)

I. Objective Perception Exercise

1. Direct, physical observation of plant

Overall plant appearance:
The foliage presents itself as a cloudy mass of fresh green, crowned in the upper reaches by numerous vivid mauve or magenta flower heads, which dance and sway gracefully in response to the wind, even the tightest breeze. The overall appearance of Cosmos is that of a medium-size shrub that is soft, flexible, feathery and fernlike, due to the abundant, graceful, airy, delicate foliage and the equally delicate, fluttering blossoms. In contrast to this general impression of a delicate plant that sways softly in the wind, the main stems in fact can be quite thick tough, and woody. The main stems stand as vertically as possible. All of the subsidiary blossom stems and the individual leaves, grow out of the main stem at a sharp upwards angle of less than 45 degrees.

Cosmos rarely grows as high as human eye-level (more usually, between knee and chest high), so while large and showy enough to be noticed, it is still in a “lowly” position.

In the observed patch, most of the individual plants that have reached the blooming stage range from 30-40" in height measuring from ground to topmost flowers. The tallest single plant in this patch is actually tilted over and growing somewhat horizontally (away from the wind); if upright, it would stand about 60" tall. Its main stem, at the ground, is 1" in diameter; its largest branch 1/2" in diameter. Individual plants tend to extend their branches out about as wide as they are tall.

Buds are quite small, about 1/8" in diameter when they first appear at the center of the 8-pointed outer bracts, reaching about 1/2" by the time they are ready to open. By the time the outer ray florets have unfolded, the blossom is about 2" in diameter. Since the single-petal ray florets continue growing as the blossom opens outwards, fully opened blossoms are typically about 3" to 3-1/2" in diameter, and a few blossoms in this patch have reached nearly 5" in diameter. The center discs of florets do very little additional outward expansion after the bud unfolds, only ever reaching 1/2"- 3/4" diameter. Leaves are generally 2-3" from base to tip.

Leaf appearance & orientation:
The foliage is feathery and fern-like. “Pinnatus” means feathered or feathery in Latin; so distinctive leaf design gives the plant its second name. From the main vertical stem, the leaves extend outwards, more or less parallel to the ground, and appear in pairs, oriented 180 degrees to each other. Each succeeding leaf pair is oriented on the stem at right angles to the previous pair. There is generally a space of 2­4" between leaf pairs along the length of the stem. The final pair of fully-developed leaves is usually surmounted by a blossom stem of 3-5".

The leaves are formed of narrow, pointed, deeply-cut lobes curving outwards slightly from a central vein or spine. These lobes are arranged as opposed pairs in a symmetrical, bilateral pattern, with a single or twinned lobe at the end. Generally there are 3-5 pairs. Each lobe is, in turn, adorned with several pairs of small, pointed bilateral extensions along its length. The very base of each leaf is broad and flanged, almost like a bract which wraps about halfway around the base of its companion blossom stem. The leaf base is not always the same color as the rest of the leaf. Its color ranges from pale green (on plants with pale mauve blossoms) to light maroon (on plants that have dark magenta blossoms).

Bud/flower appearance & orientation:
The buds appear as tiny flat disks, with 8 long, pointed bracts symmetrically curving outwards. Even at this stage, they are facing upwards, towards the sun and sky. The buds gradually widen and thicken into a button-shape. At this point, faint seams are visible on the “skin” of the bud-button. These soon split apart, to form 8 short, triangular inner bracts. From the midst of these, the deeply-pleated magenta petals of the 8 ray florets begin to push straight upwards. Then as they continue to increase in size, they begin to stretch out from the center composite-floret disk, and form a wide, open cup.

The “cup” of the Cosmos in full bloom is exactly the shape of a dish antenna, and is even “aimed,” at the sky at much the same angle as these wave receivers. The fully-open Cosmos blossom often turns this “dish antenna” somewhat towards the sun. When the wind blows, the blossoms turn their undersides to the direction of the wind so that the inner, fertile disc is sheltered behind a round “parasol” of ray florets.

Collage by Patricia Leslie

After fertilization, as the disc florets begin to set seed, the disc bulges upwards (still towards the sky) and outwards, and the ray florets wilt drooping towards the ground and gradually dropping away. Often one or two rays will wilt inwards, folding protectively over the developing seedpod.

Fruit/seedpod appearance:
The 1/2" in diameter pod, formed of the over layers of the bracts, is shaped rather like a brandy snifter. Out of the top of this small vessel protrude the top ends of dozens and dozens of tiny seeds, "packed in" vertically. As the pod ripens completely, the bracts (like the ray florets before them), dry out and bend tuck (down, earthwards), enabling the seeds to splay outwards.

Individual seeds look rather like long, dark caraway seeds - they are about 1/4 to 3/8 inch long, and comparably thin; a solid dark brown to black color. They have a very flimsy attachment to the old bract, by means of a pinpoint thin bottom end. The slightest touch to the fully-ripe pod will shake them loose. Each one seems to be wrapped in a thin paper membrane, which flakes away very easily. This structure surely helps it blow in the wind but is not sufficient to carry it high in the air, and would more likely help the seed to skim over the ground until it catches somewhere.

2. Relation and integration of plant parts: forms and patterns in metamorphosis; base to top; root to stem and leaf; flower to fruit to seed

Since these plants are all currently in their prime, I am not able to uproot one in order to study its root system. However, having removed dead Cosmos from a flower bed last year, I seem to recall that the root system was quite tough, branching, and occupied at least as wide an area of the soil, as the breadth of the upper plant body. Nearly all the leaves retain the same structure and growth pattern from the base of the main stem, to the last pair of leaves near each end blossom.

The modest early shoots emerging from the bare, dry soil do not give a hint at how the plant will soon burgeon. Along the main vertical stem, bract-like pairs of leaves emerge, and from between each leaf base and the stem, emerges a new blossom stem. As a blossom stem grows, it produces a number of these doubled leaf blossom joints along its length. Each of the blossom stems emerging from these subsidiary joints may in turn produce its own series of leaf/ blossom pairings as it grows. By the simple expedient of at least doubling each advance it makes, a Cosmos plant can quickly produce a “fortune” of seedpods.

The transition of the Cosmos from bud to seedpod is a constant, steady expansion, the movement both up and outwards.

3. Environment of plant

The curbside area where this patch of Cosmos is flourishing, is unshaded from dawn until very late afternoon. It grows in a completely exposed area, right between frequent foot and vehicle traffic. Since this street is about 1/2 mile from San Francisco Bay and oriented east-west, there is generally fog in the mornings at this season, and westerly winds off the Bay blow almost constantly up this street, with no windbreaks. Due to sun exposure, the drying aspect of wind, and very infrequent watering by human intervention, the micro-climate is quite arid, with the morning fog providing minimal natural moisture.

4. Twelve Windows of Plant Perception

A) Form gesture, signature:
The Cosmos has a form and gesture that is graceful, airy, and mobile. It is responsive to every breath of wind or touch by another living thing. It opens outwards in a generous gesture, expanding, trusting, and risking.

At the same time, it is protective of its innermost, female reproductive parts until they are fully ripe and ready to be released. It has an expansive signature in its bounty of blossoms and multitude of seeds that emerge from each blossom.

The blossom's color signature shows a yellow center, symbolizing a strong solar plexus chakra, with a radiating aura of mauve or magenta, which seems to symbolize the sacralizing of the will by spiritual awareness. This suggests aid to those who feel afraid to assert their will in the world, because they are never quite sure whether their motives are informed enough by the highest possible consciousness.

The gestural shape of the blossom, a broadly opened cup turned towards the sun and the heavens indicates a character of openness and receptivity to messages from outside of the earthly realm.

Another strongly marked signature is the sturdy, well-balanced bilateral branching habit, from the largest stems to the tiniest protrusions on the leaflets. This motif of equality and balance suggests the astrological sign of Libra, the scales, which in fact rules the latter part of the Cosmos growing season. This signature suggests a resonance with equity, fairness, justice, balance, and the hearing of both sides of an issue. Finally, Cosmos has a strong numerical signature, associated with the numbers 2 and 8. (See entry for geometry/ mathematics.)

B) Orientation in space:
The perfectly cylindrical stems are generally vertical in orientation to the ground. Lower, branch-like secondary stems grow out from the main stems more or less parallel to the ground, but within several inches begin to curve upwards at an angle, so that they eventually become relatively vertical stems. Upper stems angle up and out sharply from the main stem, usually at less than 45 degrees. Both the leaves and the flower heads are oriented more or less horizontally to the ground. When not blowing in the wind, the flower heads turn slightly towards the sun. Breezes cause the Cosmos flowers to “turn their backs,” shielding the central, fertile discs downwind, with the undersides of the ray flowers forming a windbreak.

Geometry: There is much symmetry and balance. The numbers 2 and 8 are most strongly represented.

Regarding the number 2, the flower stems and leaves grow in pairs. They are paired in two ways - each flower stem is paired with a leaf stem, emerging from a joint and each flower leaf pair is matched by another flower-leaf pair, on the direct opposite side of the stem. So each joint or juncture incorporates a total of 4 stems (2 twos). Every blossom stem carries the potential to produce doubled pairs of leaves and blossom stems along its length. The individual leaves reproduce this repetition of paired elements. Each composite leaf comprises a series of lobes, which are essentially paired bilaterally, except for a last, single lobe, which grows straight out at the tip.

Regarding the number 8, each blossom begins with an outer bract in the shape of an 8-pointed star. An inner set of 8 smaller bracts form the covering of the blossom bud. When the blossom opens, a ring of 8 large magenta ray florets dominate its appearance. And, as the tiny center florets first begin to open - at first just 8 of them are centered at the meeting points between the 8 rays.

The center disc of tiny yellow florets is organized in the well-known spiral pattern most recognizable in the much larger sunflower members of the Compositae or Asteraceae family. I have counted 13 “strands” in the Cosmos spiral.

Mathematics: In the Kabbalah, the 8th path, Hod, is known as Splendor, or the Lightning Path. It is the “sphere of the intellect... of Divine Reason or Universal mind.”1 Dr. Eakins also notes that Hod is associated with thinking, intellectual reasoning, verbal expression and communication, as well as skills, symbols, metaphors and wit. The number 2 is Chokmah, “Wisdom,” also associated with the Father, yang, creative energy, outer values, outward knowledge, wisdom, and ideas.2 According to Paul Foster Case, the number 8 is the particular number of Thoth, Hermes and Mercury, as well as the “Number of the Lord” in Christianity, and the numerical value of the name Jehovah. Case states that the number 8 relates to rhythm, alternating cycles, and all pairs of opposites being recognized as “effects of a single Cause.”3

C) Botanical plant family:
Cosmos bipinnatus
, also commonly called Mexican aster, is a member of the Compositae or Asteraceae family - the largest family of vascular plants which includes sunflowers, asters, daisies, yarrows, echinacea, arnica, coreopsis, chrysanthemums, marigolds, zinnias, thistles, ragweed, dandelions, burdock and even artichokes, lettuce, and endive. This family generally bears rounded or circular blossoms, which comprise tightly-packed “disc” communities of florets at the center, and longer ray florets, often of a contrasting color, around the perimeter.

D) Cycles of Time:
Cosmos is an annual, completing its lifespan from seed back to seed during a single growing season. Different sources give the flowering times as, variously, August-September, June to first frost, or spring to autumn. In the patch observed in this study, first shoots only began to appear around Summer Solstice, which this year coincided with the end of the unseasonably late rains. The first buds began opening in early July; now, after one month, the whole community of Cosmos plants seems to be going strong, with many buds still beginning to form, and some young plants still emerging I would anticipate continued growth and blooming at least through August. (Many of the Compositae family – whether annuals or perennials – are late-summer to autumn bloomers.)

Cosmos has a growth pattern in which each plant has numerous blossoms at every stage of development. In its prime, an individual Cosmos will simultaneously have tiny flower buds still beginning to emerge lower on its stems, while some seedpods are already scattering their seeds. So, within its own life cycle, an adult plant presents a gestalt of all the stages of life, from birth to transition to potential rebirth.

E) Environmental/ecosystem relationships:
Covered under entry 3.

F) Four elements:

Air: The most predominant elemental characteristic of Cosmos is its affinity for Air, thriving in windswept conditions, despite being a relatively tall plant. It has an urge to stretch upwards into the air, away from the earth, flexible enough to bend with the wind, and strong enough to return to an upright state whenever the wind lets up. All of the individual plants in the observed patch grow fairly close together (3-12" apart), the side stems interlacing with one another, to provide “community support” in resisting the wind’s force. The small, light seeds are well-adapted to wind distribution.

All the parts of the Cosmos have evolved to coexist with strong winds. The extremely pinnate form of the leaves supports its survival in windy conditions by providing little wind-catching surface, therefore minimizing the likelihood of a “parachute” effect uprooting it in high winds. I believe that the slightly zigzagged or scalloped outside edges of the ray flowers (as well as the long, pointed outer bracts) also help keep the blossom from being torn off the stem in high wind, by disrupting the wind drag over the blossom, somewhat like “spoilers” on a race car.

Fire: The next most predominant element of Cosmos seems to be Fire. This is due to its willing exposure to the heat and light of the sun, without the respite of any shade. The soil it has chosen to thrive in is dry and sun-baked. The Cosmos appears to thrive during the hottest, driest time of year, in the hottest, driest location available. The blossoms expand and radiate, first up and then outwards like the rays of the sun. The center discs are a vivid, flame-yellow. The “faces” of the blossoms also seem to orient towards the sun. The tough, woody main stems contain fire as a potential.

Water: Physically, there appears to be little of the Water element about Cosmos. The leaves are thin and flat, with little area for transpiration and little capacity for water retention. The leaves and stem do not feel particularly moist, waxy, or oily. The seeds are thin and dry, not part of a juice-retaining fruit. It certainly does not seek out a moist environment in which to take root, and it chooses the driest season in which to grow. However, it is a primarily autumn-blooming plant. Autumn is, by the Celtic calendar, the season traditionally associated with the West and the element of Water, which provides an interesting balance to the seeming lack of Water associations in the plant itself.

Earth: The strongest connection to the Earth element is a fairly extensive root system, which provides a counterbalance to the tall branching stems, enabling the plant to resist uprooting by wind.

G) Relationships with plant, animal, and mineral kingdoms:

Plant neighbors: The observed Cosmos plants are volunteers in their patch of ground. The patch abuts a patch of Chamomile and St. John’s Wort which have been intentionally planted. All of the other neighbors (some intermingled with the Cosmos) are also either wildflowers, weeds, or volunteer specimens of garden flowers. They include, primarily, Buckhorn Plantain, Love-in-A-Mist, and Nasturtium, as well as Calendula, Dandelion California Poppy, Burr Clover, and various grasses.

Animal neighbors: The most frequently observed visitors are honeybees. Another insect is a tiny, 1/2 inch-long “inchworm” type of larva (with sets of legs at front and back only). I observed many; they keep their back leg sets on one of the ray florets, while arching their head ends up onto the center disc to feed, apparently, on pollen or nectar.

Small white butterflies often approach, but do not seem to settle and feed. Various flying beetles (e.g. diabrotica) and other types of bees and small flies seem to be occasional visitors. Some ants explore the stems, but they do not seem to be farming aphids on the Cosmos. I found one unknown variety of beetle larva, I also found several different spiderwebs, including one which had bent a single ray floret into a tubular home.

Mineral neighbors: The soil of this long, curbside strip is a dense adobe clay, a product of decayed volcanic rock (primarily tuff). In the late summer, it dries into many small cracks, which undoubtedly catch the tiny Cosmos seeds as they blow along the ground. Where the Cosmos now flourishes, is the only stretch of soil (8' out of about 120' of curbside soil) which we have never cultivated, planted, or amended with any planting mixtures or fertilizers.

H) Color:
The outer, petal-like ray florets of the composite heads range from delicate pink through pale or deep mauve, to it brilliant magenta (a few approaching crimson). The (commonest) medium-mauve variation will have a deeper magenta inner circle, right around the disc. Whatever the color of the “faces,” the undersides are a shade or two paler, and also flatter in tone. As the rays grow, they lighten slightly; this lightening continues as they age. The inner, compact portions of the composite discs are a bright chrome yellow. As the individual tiny flowerets of the center open, they reach up away from the center on very dark calyxes (which appear to become the seeds). Once they are fertilized and ripening, the brilliant yellow changes to more of a bronze or “old gold.” The leaves are a very fresh, “spring” green; stems and outer bracts are the same color as leaves. The inner bracts, which form the blossom "case," are a pale, translucent spring green, mottled with a light maroon. Young stems begin as a fresh green, and as they age and thicken, develop lengthwise streaks of maroon.

I) Other sense perceptions:
The blossoms have a slightly sweetish fragrance, with a mildly acrid undertone.

The ray florets, as far as I can tell, have no discernable taste. The leaves have a slightly bitter taste, not unpleasant – in fact, not unlike certain types of “exotic” greens that turn up in salad green mixtures these days (possibly arugula).

The ray florets have a very pleasant, soft, velvety texture to the surface. Brushing the leaves over one's skin produces a pleasant sensation of being lightly tickled by feathers. The stems are covered with microscopic hairs, like peach fuzz, but shorter and finer—almost imperceptible to the touch.

Cosmos makes no sound, even when blowing in the wind quite vigorously.

J) Biochemistry:
I could not find any scientific chemical analysis of Cosmos. It seems extremely benign. Being both highly attractive to insects, and not causing any kind of allergies or skin irritation in humans, it is clearly lacking in irritants. Similarly, being scentless, it seems to lack any significant volatiles.

K) Medicinal/herbal uses:
Some botanical sources state that Cosmos has “no known uses” (or hazards) as food or medicine. It is actually categorized as a weed in some botanical writings. Planted in organic gardens it has an indirect use to humans, because it is attractive to lacewings, tachinid flies, hoverflies, and various parasitic mini-wasps, all of which prey on more destructive insects.

L) Culture - lore, mythology, folk wisdom, spiritual & qualities:
The name Cosmos comes from the Greek kosmos, meaning order, harmony, or the world. According to a university website, Spanish mission priests in Mexico cultivated Cosmos in the mission gardens, and gave it this name, because of its “evenly placed petals.”4 However, when one closely observes the plant, it not only expresses order and harmony in the blossom's symmetry, grace, and simplicity, but also in the symmetrically balanced, regularly-doubled production of leaf and blossom stems.

A number of magical, neopagan-oriented websites list Cosmos as one of a couple dozen flowers (including Shasta daisies, thyme, sage, lavender & rosemary) that will attract Faeries to a garden. Various writers assert that Faeries will be most at home in a “wild” (uncultivated) corner of the garden (which is also the environment where Cosmos is most at home).

One horticultural source describes the natural habitat of Cosmos as “roadsides and waste places.” My own observation tallies with this, as it has “chosen” a completely uncultivated strip of dirt between the sidewalk and the street, in which to bloom joyously and abundantly. It is interesting to reflect that “roadsides and waste places” are recognized in traditional cultures worldwide, as sites for spiritual epiphanies, encounters with spiritual beings in disguise, vision quests, walkabouts, and other metaphysical and transformative experiences of the . . . Cosmos.

II. Artistic Expression Exercise

Invocation to the Cosmos Flower

Portrait of Cosmos


1 Tarot of the Spirit , Pamela Eakins, Ph.D. 1992, Samuel Weiser, Inc.

2 ibid.

3 The Tarot a Key to the Wisdom of the Ages. Paul Foster Case,1947. Paul Foster Case, publ.

4 Texas A&M University , Aggie Horticulture Network.


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