Strike Gold with Sunflowers

Last summer my garden overflowed with a special kind of sunshine. Dozens of sunflowers greeted me each day and the variety of their cheerful sunny faces was dazzling.

There were the large single heads of ‘Skyscraper’ that soared on stalks almost 10 feet tall. These Frisbee-sized flowers were balanced by the shorter, multi-branched varieties that bloomed all summer long. In October, long after the rest of the garden went into hibernation, the small yellow-gold blooms of ‘Maximillian’ steadily climbed upward on sturdy stems.


Sunflowers of every shape, size and color
attract beneficial insects to the garden.
Jodi Torpey © 2007

For centuries the Helianthus annuus has provided food, medicine and artistic inspiration. But even Vincent van Gogh would be surprised to see that sunflowers are no longer limited to the familiar golden palette. Gardeners now select from a large assortment of ornamentals with colorful names like ‘Ruby Eclipse’, ‘Lemon Queen’, ‘Sundown’, ‘Terracotta’ and ‘Italian White’.

There’s also a sunflower for every garden size. Tall sunflowers, like the ‘Mammoth Russian’, make a dramatic backdrop for large gardens; semi-tall varieties can be used as an attractive hedge. For those who prefer to cut their sunflowers for bouquets, breeders have perfected many, pollenless ornamentals. Dwarf types, like the fuzzy ‘Teddy Bear’, grow only 1 or 2 feet tall and can be used in small spaces or container plantings.

Another ornamental for cutting is the All-America Selections winner ‘Ring of Fire.’ Its dark red petals taper to golden yellow tips on a plant that grows 4 to 5 feet tall. The burgundy-hued ‘Claret,’ early-blooming ‘Eversun’ and ‘Giant Sun Gold’, the taller version of ‘Teddy Bear’, make beautiful bouquets.

New sunflowers for 2007 include the ‘Junior’ sunflower, the first pollen-free, dwarf, branching variety. ‘Junior’ grows 2 feet tall and is covered with long-lasting four-inch blooms. Other colorful varieties have delicious sounding names like ‘Premier Lemon’, ‘Peach Passion’ and ‘Sunrich Orange Summer.’ ‘Red & Lemon Bicolor’ combines two favorite colors into one bright bloom.

Sunflowers are so easy to grow that even birds can do it. Simply select a sunny garden spot with well-drained soil and sow the seeds after the last frost, around mid-May. Place seeds in moistened soil about one-inch deep and several inches apart.

Keep soil moist and watch for sprouts, usually in 10 to 14 days, then follow seed packet instructions for thinning. Sunflowers don’t need to be pampered with fancy fertilizers and they certainly don’t like to be over-watered, so water infrequently, but deeply.

For those who want the beauty of sunflowers without the bother of planting and thinning, Park Seed Company has a convenient sunflower seed tape collection. Straight rows of ‘Red Sun’, ‘Velvet Queen’, ‘Henry Wilde’ and ‘Vanilla Ice’ are guaranteed. Just place the tape and water.

Look for seeds at local garden centers or place special orders by shopping online or in catalogs. With over 60 species within the Helianthus genus, there are plenty to choose from.

Sunflowers are a North American native and my garden wouldn’t be complete without them. Besides saving money at the farmer’s market on large, colorful bouquets, the seeded varieties attract wildlife to the garden. Squirrels and birds flock to the flowers and practically stand on their heads to get to every seed.

Copyright © 2007 Jodi Torpey
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