The natural response to a sunflower is a smile. We can’t resist their open faces and warm colors. A stand of sunflowers is a glorious sight in summer.
Not only are sunflowers beautiful in bouquets and in gardens, they are grown on thousands of acres for food and alternative energy.
Constantly reinvented, there are short ones less than two feet tall and tall ones over 15 feet, with flower or seed heads ranging from a couple of inches wide to over a foot. There are pollen-free types for non-shedding bouquets. Flowers come in warm shades from ivory through yellow, orange, brown, bronze, and burgundy, and all of them are easy, fast growers. They turn their faces to the east in the morning and the west at night: natural sun worshippers following the sun.
Over many years, the sunflower had to travel to Russia and back before becoming so valuable and varied. Early explorers of the New World took them back as a novelty to Europe, where they were admired by Peter the Great. Russian growers worked with the seeds and developed the large food-bearing strains that today go by names such as
‘Mammoth Russian,” ‘Russian Giant,” and ‘Kong Hybrid.” With their fast growth they thrived in the short but sunny Russian summers as a reliable food and oil crop. When the impressive Russian types made their way back to Europe and North America, their commercial potential was obvious to all.
Sunflowers are the state flower of Kansas. According to columnist Steve Gilliland for www.thekansan.com , “A sunflower grown in the Netherlands holds the record for the tallest ever grown, at 25 feet, 5 inches; a sunflower grown in British Columbia boasts the widest head ever recorded at 32 inches across; and a sunflower grown in Michigan claims the most heads with 837 sunflower heads on one plant.”
I’ve enjoyed many kinds of garden variety sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), especially the smaller annual types with bushy form and many flowers per plant. The main problems are finding enough sunny growing space and protecting delicious seedlings from squirrels, bunnies, and other critters. I swear, in my yard devious squirrels plant sunflower seeds from bird feeders and then eat the seedlings that sprout.
Unlike squirrels, you can shop for seeds of named varieties at garden stores. Start them in little pots of planting medium indoors until they have a couple of sets of leaves, then transplant them. In May or later, you can plant seeds directly in defended garden ground in full sun. The soil should be deep and fertile, the same as for corn or tomatoes. If conditions are “go” the plants will flower in as little as two months. You can plant more every two weeks for a succession of blooms. For less predictable results you can plant sunflower seeds from birdseed, but cooked sunflower seeds sold for snacks will never sprout.
For home gardening and bouquets there are some choice selections:
Short varieties, under three feet tall, are good in large containers or in flowerbeds. ‘Music Box” is uniform in size and its flowers are varied in color. ‘Teddy Bear” is less than two feet tall and has double yellow flowers. It’s been around for many years. ‘Sunspot” has a single bright yellow bloom a foot wide and is only 18 inches tall.
These mid-size plants are garden worthy as temporary hedges, background plants in borders, and cut flower superstars. Check the catalogs and seed racks for the colors you like best. Look for silvery leaves (a hint of H. debilis genes which provide bushiness without pinching) and multiple blossoms per plant. ‘Valentine” is a pale gold one I have grown and treasured. Others that sound good are ‘Italian White,” ‘Sonya” (orange), ‘Moulin Rouge,” and ‘Velvet Queen” (wine-red), ‘Green Heart” and ‘Sunbeam,” which are pollen-free with green centers, and pale yellow ‘Key Lime Pie.” To condition them for bouquets, scald the stem ends and put the long-stemmed flowers into deep, cool water for several hours.
THE BIG RUSSIANS
Usually these 10- plus-footers have names such as ‘Kong Hybrid” that give you more than a hint of the stature to come. They need plenty of sun, space, and fertilizer. Unpinched, each plant makes a trunklike woody stem topped with one large, heavy flower. For bushier plants, pinch them back when they are two feet tall. You can grow them for your own snack food or birdseed, but grow them just for fun, too. Plant them in a semicircle in May; by the end of August they”ll make the perfect playhouse for kids. Since all parts of the plants are nontoxic, in fact are edible, this is a very safe and fun project. After the seeds form, the large heads hang down and birds come along for a banquet.
For a permanent sunny garden feature, try the perennial sunflower Helianthus maximilianii, with big sprays of bright golden flowers year after year. They are naturally eight or so feet tall, so cut the plants way back in early July to keep them shorter and bushier. They will then bloom in late summer or early fall.