Bright, cheery, and emulating its namesake, sunflowers are always a crowd favorite. When it comes to summer flowers, this bloom is often at the top of the list. You can’t help but smile at their bright yellow petals (incidentally called rays) that give them their sun-like appearance. They are beloved by many, but, in all honesty, I didn’t use to be a fan of these flowers. I felt they were a bit overrated for my taste for many years. Then I discovered that sunflowers come in many varieties, sizes, shapes, and colors. I wanted to determine what all the fuss was about, so I finally broke down and bought some seeds. I planted, tended, and watched those first sunflower seedlings grow, and my opinion of them drastically changed when the first bloom opened. I instantly became a sunflower fan and have grown them in my garden every season since.
Native to North America, sunflowers have been steeped in our history for thousands of years. Native Americans cultivated these flowers as a food source and for adornment and medicinal purposes. Traditionally, they were planted on the north edges of Native American gardens as a “fourth sister” in addition to the three sisters combination of corn, beans, and squash. In 1510, Spanish explorers carried sunflower seeds back to Europe from the Americas, where their popularity spread as an ornamental. They were so beloved that they even caught the eye of artist Vincent van Gogh, who painted a series of sunflower portraits during the late 1800s while in France.
While sunflowers are popular as an ornamental, they have many other uses. For example, the seeds and oil are used as a food source: sold as seeds, sunflower butter, and sunflower oil. Sunflower seeds are also popular for bird enthusiasts to fill their feeders. Today, Russia and Ukraine grow 53% of the world’s sunflower seeds, and sunflowers are Ukraine’s national flower. Besides being a food source, sunflowers are also known to produce latex and can be used to extract toxic substances such as lead, uranium, and arsenic from the soil. Wow, who knew there are so many uses for sunflowers!
One additional fun fact about sunflowers is that they are heliotropic. Young sunflowers will direct themselves towards the sun and move from east to west throughout the day following the sun. At night, they will reorient themselves to the east in anticipation of the morning sun. Once fully mature, they will stop being heliotropic and continue to face east. This orientation allows the mature flowers to warm rapidly in the morning, increasing pollination visits. Sunflowers are fascinating!
As a cut flower grower, I am interested in growing sunflowers for ornamental purposes. Sunflowers make excellent cut flowers and have a long vase life, especially if harvested early when the first petals start to rise off the center of the bloom. Luckily for growers and home gardeners, sunflowers come in various colors, from white to yellow, orange, red, and even green. Sunflowers come in many cultivar forms, from single stem to branching, dwarf to giant, and even pollenless. They are one of the easiest flowers to grow from seed, whether directly sown into the garden or planted indoors and transplanted. All you need is a spot with full sun and well-draining soil, and your sunflowers will be happy. Sunflowers are also excellent candidates for succession sowing as they typically have a quick growth rate. You can plant seeds every few weeks during the growing season for continuous blooms from July through September. Pinching is recommended for the branching varieties to produce even more flowers. However, do not pinch your single stem sunflowers, or you will not get any buds.
While generally problem free, there are a few issues that can arise while growing sunflowers. The seeds are delectable to deer, chipmunks, squirrels, and birds, so take steps to protect them if directly sown in the garden. I had to laugh this year when I returned the day after I planted sunflower seeds to find that every one of them had been eaten by a chipmunk. There were perfectly spaced empty holes exactly where all the planted seeds had been. I can only imagine how excited that chipmunk was that I had planted those seeds just for him. Lesson learned: the next time I planted seeds, I used row cover until the seedlings were big enough to fend for themselves. Besides the threat of consumption by wildlife, sunflowers are also susceptible to some fungal issues such as downy mildew and the more severe fusarium.
My favorite varieties that I’ve grown include ‘Teddy Bear,’ ‘Starburst Greenburst,’ and ‘Lemonade.’ I love the multi-petaled look of these cultivars. Next season I plan on growing these favorites along with several other varieties, including ‘Holiday,’ ‘Sun-Fill Purple,’ and several in the popular Pro-Cut series, including ‘Plum,’ ‘White Lite,’ ‘White Nite,’ and ‘Gold Lite.’ I also plan on trying the perennial variety ‘Maximillian.’ Quite a few types for a gal who used to be impartial to sunflowers!
So now I understand what all the fuss over sunflowers is all about. I, too, have become a sunflower enthusiast. They bring a bright and cheery mood to the flower patch that will lift your spirits while you set about your garden chores. And as a bonus, pollinators love them too! Now I can’t think of a reason not to grow these fantastic flowers. So, why not plant some sunflowers in your garden next season, and while you’re at it, take some advice from a sunflower: be bright, sunny, and cheerful. Spread joy and happiness wherever you go. Stand tall and hold your head high, and you will find the light even on the darkest days. Happy growing!