Something has happened to sunflowers in recent years. No longer are you limited to the tall single-stemmed variety your grandmother grew: that sunflower with daffodil-yellow petals fringing a plate-sized head packed with seeds the birds begin robbing before she had a chance to cut the plant down.
Today there are dwarf and tall varieties (and everything in between); sunflowers that branch and produce multiple heads; sunflowers with colors running the gamut from white through lemon, orange, red, beige, bronze and burgundy. There are sunflowers with bi-colored petals; there are double flowers and sunflowers without pollen (for use as cut flowers). Whether you’re looking for a multi-branching two footer for a patio planter, or a row of 16-foot giants to screen your yard from a neighbor’s for the summer, you’ll find a profusion of choices.
That being said, there are a few things about Helianthus – from the Greek, helios (sun), and anthos (flower) – that haven’t changed. Sunflower heads look a child’s rendering of the sun, which may explain their name, but they also crave a full day’s exposure to their namesake to grow well.
Other than that, sunflowers are forgiving. Once established, they will tolerate heat, drought and – despite the size that some attain – poor soil (though not of poor drainage). You can start the seed indoors or sow them directly in the ground they will occupy. Outside, plant them four to six inches apart, then thin – you can transplant your thinnings elsewhere – until they stand 12 to 18 inches apart.
Sowing outside? Wait until two weeks after your last frost date. Inside, don’t plant too early because once the seedlings emerge (germinations takes 7 to 14 days) they are fast growers and can get leggy if a cold spell delays their planting out. Cover the seed with half an inch of soil and keep the planting medium moist (not waterlogged) until they germinate (7 to 14 days) and take hold.
Sunflowers are one of the few crops believed to have originated in North America (most others trace their beginnings to the Fertile Crescent, Asia or Central or South America). They were probably domesticated 3,000 years ago by western Native American tribes, and were likely introduced in Europe by Spanish explorers. They remained an Old World curiosity until they reached Russia in 1860, where they were cultivated as a crop and were selected for high oil content in their seeds. After the second World War, the high-oil varieties were reintroduced in the U.S., which increased interest in sunflowers as a crop. Today they’re raised for their seeds’ oil, and as bird- and snack-food.
Sunflowers’ ease in germination and forgiving nature make them a good choice for the beginning gardener. (By the time you’re an accomplished gardener, you’ll be too in love with sunflowers to give them up.) For those who plant for wildlife, sunflowers are terrific; their seeds are a favorite with seed-eating birds – and with the small mammals that (for better or worse) haunt our feeders: chipmunks, squirrels and the like. Watching the chipmunks fill their cheeks with the black oil sunflower seeds I spread on my deck, and seeing the divots in my garden beds where they have stored them for future consumption, I know there’s no need to order sunflower seed this winter. I’ll have all too many volunteers sprouting from the underground vaults the chipmunks forgot.
According to Armitage’s “Native Plants for North American Gardens,” there are about 25 Helianthus species native to the United States. (Other sources say there are twice that number.) The best known is Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower. It’s the state flower of Kansas, where a quarter million acres of sunflowers are planted annually, though the state’s production figures trail North and South Dakota. About eight billion pounds of sunflower seed is produced annually in the U.S. – or 26 pounds per capita. Although I occasionally snack on sunflower seeds and use them making bread and granola, it’s the birds, squirrels and chipmunks in my back yard who are responsible for our household’s annual consumption of sunflower seed exceeding the national average by at least a factor of four.
With full sun a premium commodity in my northwest-facing garden beds, I ought to foreswear sunflowers. Some years I do. But they are such presences in the garden! The bees love them and so do I. In the bud stage, the flower heads are heliotropic: they follow the sun from east to west and during the night turn back to greet it. By the time they’re in full bloom, they lose this facility, though they bow their heads when the seeds are mature. (Another way to judge maturity is by the color of the back of the head, which changes from green to yellow.) The goldfinches and chickadees are likely to notice this before you do and beat you to the harvest.
I have said I sometimes foreswear sunflowers. But it’s hard. Who can resist the charms of Prado Reds (“produces 15 to 20 beautiful deep red flowers per plant”) or Earthwalkers (“a new range of colors for home gardeners – a variety of earth tones”)? And what of the gold-fringed giants: the Black Russians (12 to 15 feet tall and “good for birds”), the Giant Gray Stripe (“blooms typically over a foot wide”) and the Kongs (“multi-branched,” “heavy stocked, and very sturdy”)? Towering varieties like these must be staked (or tied to a fence) though it’s not a bad idea to provide support to the five- to six-footers if your yard is windswept. I’ve never grown the dwarf varieties (Pacino, a branching type, is designed for pots, and grows only 16 to 24 inches tall), though if I were gardening with children, I’d purchase a packet. And I’m not crazy about the doubles, though a child might cotton to a sunflower called Teddy Bear (four- to five-inch flower heads on 24- to 36-inch plants).
Most of the sunflower varieties in the seed catalogs are cultivars of H. annuus, though a few other native annuals are also available. Two to look for are silver-leaf sunflower (H. argophyllus) and cucumber-leaved sunflower (H. debilis, sometimes H. cucumerifolius). Yet another is Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus), also know as “sunchoke,” though it won’t be listed among the flowers, but in the vegetable section. Planted for its edible tubers, it produces a forest of sunny yellow blooms atop six-foot stems. Try it if you like, but be forewarned of its colonial aspirations. Native perennial sunflowers that grow from tubers “can be absolutely thuglike,” Allan Armitage writes.
Non-tuberous perennial sunflowers can be added to perennial borders, but don’t do it unless you have space to accommodate what he calls their “land-eating tendencies.” In perennial varieties, “dwarfness is relative and plants may still grow four to five [inches] in height,” he notes. Beware of claims to the contrary. If your space is limited, explore the annuals.
More About Sunflowers
Sources: For information about native sunflowers (among others): Check out Armitage’s “Native Plants for North American Gardens,” by Allan M. Armitage, Timber Press, Portland, OR, 2006.
For seed: Most seed catalogs will offer you more choices than you need of cultivars of Helianthus annuus, in all colors, sizes and branching habits. Pinetree Garden Seeds (207/926-3400, or www.superseeds.com) offers 19 H. annuus, plus Vanilla Ice (H. debilis), and Jerusalem artichokes; Territorial Seed Company (1-800-626-0866, www.territorialseed.com) offers 24 H. annuus varieties, plus Italian White (H. cucumerifolius).