(Helianthus annuus)

Appearance
Towering overhead, sunflowers may resemble their namesake, but their name actually comes from their ability to keep their “face” turned toward the sun as it moves across the sky. Everyone recognizes a conventional sunflower with its huge dark disk surrounded by yellow petals, set atop a sturdy stalk that may reach over eight feet in height. Newer cultivars, however, may not be so familiar. Breeders have developed shorter plants (as low as two feet) and an expanded palette of hues ranging from mahogany through orange to lemon yellow, white, and even a soft rose. Many types sport more than one color.

Cultivation
Sunflowers are easily grown from their large seeds, making them an excellent choice for a child’s garden. Pick a site that receives full sun, and amend the soil with plenty of compost. Sow around mid-May, covering seeds with a half inch of fine soil, and keep the ground moist until they sprout. Plants prefer regular irrigation, but can handle some drying. Mulch to keep the soil evenly damp and to reduce weeding.

Landscape Use
The taller sunflowers should be placed at the back of a border or along a fence, where their height is an asset. Shorter varieties make a bold statement in a mixed border. Some are even appropriate as bedding plants. Consider growing extra plants for cutting: sunflowers make striking arrangements.

A note on the newer pollen free hybrids:
Although touted as “pollen free,” these cultivars do produce pollen, but it sticks to the anthers instead of dropping on the table under your vase of cut flowers. This is great for the housekeeper, but not so good for the bees. They’re unable to harvest this sticky pollen. (It seems a bit unfair for a hard-working bee to arrive at a sunflower expecting a veritable feast and instead be sent away hungry.) If your goal is growing seed, a pollen-producing variety will be needed as a pollinator.

Article and photo by Leslie Holzmann, Certified Colorado Gardener.

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