Discover the world of simply superb sunflowers

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Home & Garden - posted Mon., May. 7, 2012
- Contributed Photo

Of all the flowers I grow from seed, I find the sunflower most wondrous. How a plant can grow 6, 10, even 15 feet tall from a small half-inch seed in just two to three months time is one of the wonders of nature that just never ceases to amaze me.

Plant breeders have been working hard in recent years to bring us new and exciting sunflower cultivars and pollenless hybrids – a far cry from their coarse, leggy ancestors. The color range has increased to include orange, burgundy, mahogany, lime, apricot, cream and many lovely bicolors. Branching varieties bear multitudes of cheerful blossoms and dwarfs are stylish enough to use in the flower garden.

In past times 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 puddings. Sunflower infusions were brewed to alleviate chest pains and treat snake bites. The juice from the stems was applied to wounds. When sunflowers were sent back to Europe by the early explorers, they became much the gardening rage, with all striving to see who could grow the tallest.

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. Some purists prefer sunflowers that produce both nectar and pollen to encourage more of our native pollinator species.

The main reason I grow some pollen-less sunflowers is for their colors. Look to fill your vases with ‘Sunrich Orange,’ ‘Sunrich Yellow,’ ‘Velvet Queen,’ ‘Prado Gold,’ ‘Prado Red’ and ‘Moon Walker,’ to mention a few. These look absolutely stunning combined with some of the newer rudbeckias and ornamental grasses both in the garden and in arrangements.

For interesting foliage as well as delightful yellow blossoms, ‘Silverleaf’ is a unique Japanese variety with silvery leaves, attractive even when not in bloom. Multi-stemmed varieties, only 3 to 4 feet high, with generously-sized blooms include ‘Sunset,’ ‘Tangina’ and ‘Happy Face.’

Last are the true dwarfs. ‘Sunspot’ and ‘Big Smaile’ produce full-size sunflower blossoms on plants less than 2 feet tall. While they may look a little disproportionate to you, your child will probably be enthralled with them. One of the best dwarfs for bedding is ‘Music Box,’ a multi-stemmed 2-footer covered with bicolored flowers in yellow, gold and mahogany.

As far as culture, growing sunflowers is fairly easy. Plant in full sun after the danger of frost is past. Sow seeds about three-quarters of an inch deep and 6 inches apart. I always find a large number or volunteer self-seedlings. While not sure of their color or height, I have yet to be disappointed and will transplant them into more ordered beds.

Sunflowers are tolerant of a wide range of soil types but they do best in a light, well-drained soil. Work some compost or fertilizer into the soil before planting and be prepared to stake the taller varieties or they will be blown over in heavy winds.

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