Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Annuals

Sunflower Savvy

by Shepherd Ogden


The sunflower -- a native American -- is the hottest garden flower going. Landscapers love them, kids crave them and flower arrangers seek them out in all their glory. Sunflowers are the toast of the country-living crowd -- even those who live in the city.

Although sunflowers were cultivated by the Incas centuries before the arrival of Europeans, we owe most of the recent developments in garden sunflowers to breeders from Europe, where the sunflower was introduced as early as the 1500s, and from Japan, where many of the latest cut-flower types were developed.

The genus Helianthus includes some perennials, but most of the sunflowers in today's gardens are members of the annual species H. annuus and H. debilis, or hybrids with one of these as the parent. I describe the two main types as stiff and relaxed, respectively.

Stiff varieties include the giant sunflowers that grace so many gardens and provide winter fare for birds. They are usually upright, with a thick, straight stem, large, coarse leaves and a large, solitary flower at the top. The blossom may be as much as 12 to 15 feet off the ground, and its nodding disk of large seeds a foot or more across. Less-common stiff types can range in height from a mere foot or two on up, and in some cases are freely branched and bushy, with many smaller blooms.

Relaxed sunflowers are rarely as tall as those grown for seed, and their multiple stems are less self-supporting, especially in windy gardens. The leaves are smaller and smoother, sometimes even velvety, and the many flowers are more reminiscent of a large black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia), though the ray petals can be lemon yellow or even as pale as ivory.

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