One thing just about everyone can agree on is that cheery, yellow sunflowers are a happy sight to see. The majority of the 70 or so species originated in North and Central America and they have been cultivated by Native Americans for perhaps the last 3 to 5 thousand years. Domesticated seeds were found dating back to 2100 BCE in Mexico. Supposedly, the Incas worshipped sunflowers because of their resemblance to the all life-giving sun.

Cheery sunflower. Photo by dmp2021.

In times past, sunflowers were especially valued as a source of food and medicine. Native Americans ground the seeds into meal which was used to make breads, soups and other food items. Sunflower infusions were brewed to treat various illnesses and the juice from the stems was applied to wounds. The seeds and flower petals were also used as dye plants.

When sunflowers were sent back to Europe in the early 16th century, they became much the gardening rage with all striving to see who could grow the tallest. For the record, the tallest sunflower to date was grown in Germany in 2014 by Hans-Peter Schiffer and reached a height of 30 feet 1 inch according to the Guinness Book of World Records.  

These coarse, leggy American natives, have been the subject of much breeding throughout the years. Large-headed varieties, grown for their seed, were first developed in Russia. The Russians appreciated this oil-rich food that was not banned during the Lenten season. Through their breeding efforts, the oil content of the seeds was doubled. Even today ‘Mammoth Russian’ remains an important seed producing variety along with ‘Giant Grey Stripe’ and ‘Super Snack’. This year about 1.4 million acres of sunflowers were planted in the U.S.

Annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are quite easy to grow. Given full sun, a moderately fertile soil and adequate moisture, they will continue blooming until fall frosts halt flower production. Their Latin name is derived from the Greek ‘helios’ meaning sun and ‘anthos’ for flower. Keep in mind that the taller ones may need to be staked especially if late summer storms are expected. I have had luck grouping my sunflowers together and corralling them with tall stakes and rope.

Self-seeded sunflowers corralled to keep from toppling. Photo by dmp2007.

Sunflowers are best started from seed as they quickly produce deep roots to hold up their heavy stems and flower heads. Plant seeds early to mid-May, depending on the weather, about 1 to 1 ½ inch deep and at least 6 inches apart. Plan on thinning the plants to provide more space between them when true leaves develop. Spacing will depend on the cultivar so follow suggestions on the seed packet. Often sunflowers will self-seed. Transplant to desired location as soon as the first set of true leaves forms. If purchasing cell packs of seedlings, look for young plants and get them into the ground as soon as possible so a good root system can get established.

Curiously, sunflowers are heliotropic, meaning their flowers move to follow the sun. They face east in the morning and turn towards the west as the day advances. During the night, they reposition themselves to great the morning sun. This movement only occurs when the flowers are young and heavy seed heads have not fully developed. Eventually, the flowers just remain facing east. Perhaps they warm up earlier in the morning facing this direction, which may be more attractive to pollinators.

Sunflowers facing east. Photo by dmp2008

Depending on the variety, sunflowers will produce the larger black striped seeds desirable for snacking both by humans and larger bird species, or smaller black ones which draw many species of songbirds. If the intent is to supply a food source for winged creatures, one can simply leave the seed heads on the plants, and goldfinches, chickadees and others will feast on them.

Striped and black sunflower seeds. Photo by dmp2021

Seed heads can also be cut and hung to dry. Try using a fork or your hands to remove the seeds. Large-seeded varieties can produce a thousand or more seeds. Save some for replanting or birdseed. Seeds for snacking are typically rinsed, laid out to dry and stored in airtight containers. They can be roasted in a 300 F oven for 15 to 30 minutes if desired. Stir occasionally and take out when seeds start to brown. Sunflower seeds are high in calcium, protein, and many vitamins.

Ornamental sunflowers fall into several categories. Semi-dwarfs range from about 4 to 8 feet tall and are multi-stemmed or branching. They were primarily bred for cut flowers and many are pollen-less. Pollen-less sunflowers are male sterile hybrids. They do produce abundant nectar and enough seeds (if grown with pollen producing sunflower varieties) to keep our resident goldfinches appeased. Both cut flower growers and allergy sufferers appreciate the lack of pollen.

sunflower Strawberry Blonde. Photo by dmp2018.

The main reason I grow a few pollen-less varieties is for their colors. Look to fill your vases with ‘Sunrich Orange’, Lemon Aura’ and ‘Chianti’. Sunflowers look stunning combined with some of the newer rudbeckias and ornamental grasses, either in the garden or in arrangements.

Some purists prefer sunflowers that produce both nectar and pollen to encourage more of our native pollinator species. ‘Autumn Beauty’ ranks high on my list with yellow, bronze, and bicolor flowers on tall plants. ‘Italian White’ (H. debilis) sports lovely, medium-size, creamy flowers and produces abundant seeds.

Sunflower Italian White. Photo by dmp2007

For interesting foliage as well as delightful yellow blossoms, ‘Silverleaf’ (H. argophyllus) is a tall variety, native to Texas and the Gulf Coast, with silvery leaves, attractive even when not in bloom.

Double-flowered ‘Teddy Bear’, ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Goldy Double’ are a little shorter with powderpuff yellow or orangey-gold blossoms. Multi-stemmed varieties, only 3 to 5 feet high, with generously-sized blooms include ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Valentine’, ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Ikarus’.

Sunflower Ikarus. Photo by dmp2014

Last year I tried growing ‘Sunfinity’, a 3 to 4-foot high, branching new cultivar that was supposed to bloom throughout the summer. I don’t know if it was just too dry (although I did water regularly) but it only got to about 30 inches, bloomed in spurts and was difficult to deadhead. Claims of no deadheading were made but since it was planted next to an entrance, it needed to be neatened up from time to time. I will probably give it one more try in a large container or larger garden bed.

Sunfinity Sunflower. Photo by dmp2020

When there’s limited space, try dwarf sunflowers. ‘Sunspot’, ‘Big Smile’, ‘Suntastic Yellow’ and ‘Firecracker’ produce good size sunflower blossoms on plants typically less that 2 feet tall. While they may look disproportionate to you, your child will probably be enthralled with them. One of my favorite dwarfs for bedding is ‘Music Box’, a multi-stemmed two-footer with bicolored flowers in yellow, gold and mahogany. I grew it a few years ago, was quite pleased with how it did in the garden, but the stems were too short for cutting.

Perennial buffs looking for a late summer rush of delightful golden blooms, may want to try the perennial sunflower (H. multiflorus). Six to 8 feet tall, this species needs room to roam but what a striking sight in the setting late summer sun if you have the right spot.

Perennial sunflower and goldenrod. Photo by dmp2007.

Dawn P.