Roots and Shoots: To a Sunflower on a Summer Day

By Pamela Doan

April begins and the snow is still flying and melting so slowly, too slowly, from the woods and my yard. Fields of sunflowers with bright heads turning in unison to follow the track of the sun across the sky are a much nicer vision, and I’m going to reimagine my yard with a different palette if no one minds.

The sunflower may not make the list of top choices for flower gardens, but it should. Even without the impact of acres of identical blooms filling a vista, the sunflower is far from lowly on the beauty scale and deserves its due. Helianthus spp., as the genus is known, come in 67 different varieties, according to the National Sunflower Association, a nonprofit trade group promoting sunflower agricultural interests. I easily found 43 different types of sunflower seeds for sale on Johnny’s Seeds’ website, a popular source for seeds and supplies.

A field of sunflowers makes a cheery scene.

A field of sunflowers makes a cheery scene.

Sunflowers bring to mind the bright yellow head with a black/brown center of seeds on a tall stalk bobbing gently in the wind, but they come in many hues of yellow, orange and red, even brown. Some are streaked and multicolored. Dwarf varieties top out around 12 inches, and giant varieties tower majestically upwards of 15 feet. The tallest sunflower, according to the Guinness Book of World Records 2004 edition, was 25 feet, 5.4 inches. The seeds can be black, red, white and striped black and white. That’s a lot of diversity for a single plant.

While Russia is the top producer of sunflower-related products, sunflowers are also grown for harvest in America for oil and seed. The Department of Agriculture lists North Dakota and South Dakota as the top producing states, so if seeing acres of sunflowers moving in unison phototropically is on your bucket list, visit farms in one of those states. Although Kansas is known as the sunflower state, it gets that association because the closely related sunflower weed grows there. Confusing, but that’s for Kansas to sort out.

Less than ideal soil? Hate plants that need a lot of maintenance? A sunflower garden is right for you. They will tolerate many growing conditions and are considered to be drought tolerant, too. Water in the beginning to get the seeds sprouted, and then you can nearly forget about them.

Sunflowers don’t like to sit in puddles, though, and won’t do well in poorly drained soil. The main condition required is full sun. With this requirement, they live up to their name. I always thought that sunflowers follow the sun, but the Sunflower Association clarifies that they only do that in the bud stage. When in full bloom, sunflowers face east, it says on the website, which provides protection to the seeds from being scalded by the heat. Plants are smart that way.

Direct-sow seeds after danger of frost in the spring. In our area that is May 15. Sunflowers have a taproot and don’t transplant well. The taproot hits the bottom of the container and stops growing, resulting in a stunted plant.

Depending on the squirrel or chipmunk activity nearby, seeds might need to be protected with a barrier until they’ve gotten past the danger of being dug up. They don’t have significant pests or pathogens, but deer will eat them, so they need to be fenced or sprayed with deer repellant.

When planted in abundance in a field, sunflowers can provide habitat for migrating birds and small mammals. They’re considered to be a sustainable crop and not intensively sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Many farmers use no-till methods for their fields, which is less harmful to the environment, too.

To preserve the seeds from birds before cutting off the flower head, simply cover it with netting to keep the birds away. Alternatively, the flower heads can be stored and put out intact in winter for birds to use as a food source. The Wild Bird Feeding Industry Research Foundation lists 15 common backyard feeder birds that eat sunflowers. Titmice, nuthatch, goldfinch and downy woodpeckers all appreciate sunflower seeds.

Finally, plant the Lemon Queen sunflower and be part of the Great Sunflower Project, a citizen science effort to count pollinators that visit sunflowers. Log on to the website to sign up and get details. Then see if your bees can beat New York’s record. Ranked by state, New Yorkers average 6.9 bees per hour per flower, according to their data. Wildlife value, pollinator value, native plant, easy to grow — what’s not to love about the sunflower?

Photo courtesy National Sunflower Association

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