Sunflowers have changed their ways in the last few years. They used to be country cousins, handsome and bold but a bit too rustic. Their single stalks were awkward and prone to toppling over, they took up too much room in an ordinary garden, and they were so blatantly yellow.
Today, they’re starring in beautiful bouquets and adding dramatic presence to gardens everywhere. Many current seed catalogs list pages of sunflower varieties, and some look very different from the towering yellow flowers we drew as kids. Their glorious blossoms are single and double, gold and orange, creamy-white and copper, bronze and garnet-red as well as sunny yellow. They’re short to very tall, ranging in height from 3 to 20 feet. Some fan out like small shrubs, with up to 50 branches on a plant; others have clusters of blossoms on every stalk; all make excellent cut flowers.
We’ve begun to see sunflowers as they are—tough beauties that bloom in marvelous variety. Bees and butterflies flock to their radiant blossoms, and birds like to snack on the nutty seeds at least as much as we do. (Generally, the large-headed sunflowers produce the most seeds.) Ready to soak up the sun, each fiery face is made up of a disk and rays. The disk is the tightly packed, dark velvety center, full of pollen and nectar; the rays are the bright, surrounding petals.
CARE AND CULTURE
Even the newest sunflower varieties are exceptionally easy to grow. Most are heat- and drought-tolerant annuals; some self-sow; and some are persistent long-blooming perennials, which spread stoloniferously (by runner branches that produce new plants from nodes or buds). Related to native American prairie plants in the daisy, or composite, family, they are cheerfully tolerant of poor soil as long as they have enough sun, although they prefer well-drained soil. * Plant the large seeds no more than one inch deep in well-dug; loose soil after it has thoroughly warmed up, from mid-April to mid-June. Or start seeds indoors a couple of weeks earlier.
* If possible, put seeds in a spot that is sheltered from strong winds, perhaps along a fence or near a building.
* Give plants plenty of room—more for varieties that will branch out. Grow them in rows 30 inches apart. Set seeds 3 to 4 inches apart, and thin to 12 to 18 inches, leaving the strongest plants. * If birds scratch around for the seeds, spread netting over the planted area until the seeds germinate.
* Water plants deeply but infrequently to encourage rooting, and feed the plants only sparingly, overfertilization may cause stems to break in the fall.
* To harvest seeds, keep an eye out for ripeness. They’re ready when the bracts begin to dry. Hang the heads upside down until they’re thoroughly dry in a place that’s safe from birds and mice. For eating, rub the seeds off and soak them overnight in a gallon of water to which a cup of salt has been added, then dry them again in an oven at 250 °F for 4 to 5 hours. Store them in an air-tight container.
THE CLASSIC SUNFLOWER
The most common sunflower, the one we grow from seed every summer, is Helianthus annuus. This species varies tremendously, and you may find it hard to choose just a few varieties to try. Consider Summer Sun, available from Nature Hills Nursery in a 3.5 inch pot for just $9.98.
Here are some other popular varieties:
Autumn Beauty — one of the most spectacular cultivars, has many six-inch flowers in shades of yellow, bronze, and mahogany on branching stems up to seven feet tall.
Evening Sun — an import from Holland is a mix of beautiful strong-stemmed flowers in shades of red and brown and is just as tall as Autumn Beauty. Its plant stalks and leaves are veined with maroon, deepening the rosy effect. Variations include pale-cream edging at the tips or hints of cream edging in the centers. It blooms from mid- to late summer.
Russian Giant — is a classic heirloom, first offered in the 1880s. It grows as a single stem up to 12 feet tall with huge flower heads of bright-yellow petals that are 10 to 12 inches in diameter. Use it at the back of the border or to screen the compost pile or neighbors view of your patio. This variety is packed with gray and-white-striped edible seeds.
Gigantius — grows 12 to 14 feet tall and bears 12-inch heads on sturdy stems with huge green leaves. It’s strong enough that it won’t need to be staked and so tall that you might want to plant it under a second-story window. This one produces gray seeds.Kong — is a sturdy giant that grows to 12 feet in height. It is impressively multi-branched and covered with four- to six-inch yellow blooms offset by large dark-green leaves.
FLUFFY-LOOKING DOUBLE FLOWERS
Double-flowered varieties, as densely packed as chrysanthemums, can range in height from five inches to eight feet:
Double Shine — glows golden orange and is a double-flowered six-footer. Its good foliage and branching habit make it an excellent cut flower.
Santa Fe — is a new cultivar that grows six to eight feet tall and produces one main stem with many double-flowered, fluffy-looking golden disks up to eight inches across.
Teddy Bear — just three feet tall, produces fluffy-looking, deep-gold five-inch blossoms.
Orange Sun — a bushy dwarf reaches three to four feet, with powder-puff blossoms of orangy gold.
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Tim Lundie, Editor