by Judy Kautz, OSU Extension Master Gardener
No flower can lift someone’s spirits quite like sunflowers. They are bright and cheery, and as warm and inviting as the sweet summer sun. With brilliant yellow petals, also known as “rays,” sunflowers have an unmistakable sun-like appearance that has made them a crowd favorite, especially in the summer months.
Sunflowers come in a number of varieties—ranging from small to very large, from having yellow petals to red. However, there is more to sunflowers than meets the eye. While they are stunningly beautiful, they also are rich in history and meaning.
Sunflowers symbolize adoration, loyalty and longevity. Much of the meaning of sunflowers stems from its namesake, the sun itself. These flowers are unique in that they have the ability to provide energy in the form of nourishment and vibrancy—attributes which mirror the sun and the energy provided by its heat and light. Sunflowers are known for being “happy” flowers, making them the perfect gift to bring joy to someone’s (or your) day.
Who can resist the cheery sunflower in the landscape!
Sunflowers originated in the Americas in 1,000 B.C. and were then cultivated as a valuable food source for centuries. With the European exploration of the New World, the flower’s popularity spread, as the rest of the world began to appreciate its beauty and sustenance.
Today, sunflowers remain a highly recognized flower, admired for their sunny charm and delightful disposition. These beauties are also still sourced for their seeds, as well as oils used for cooking and skin emollients. For a flower that reflects so many of the sun’s positive characteristics, it isn’t surprising that people enjoy basking in the sunflower’s warming glow so much.
With bright blooms that go all summer, sunflowers are heat-tolerant, resistant to pests, and attractive to pollinators and birds. They make beautiful cut flowers and their seeds (and oil) are a source of food for birds and people!
The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant with a large daisy-like flower face. Its scientific name comes from the Greek words helios (“sun”) and anthos (“flower”). The flowers come in many colors (yellow, red, orange, maroon, brown), but they are commonly bright yellow with brown centers that ripen into heavy heads filled with seeds.
Sunflowers are heliotropic, which means that they turn their flowers to follow the movement of the Sun across the sky east to west, and then returns at night to face the east, ready again for the morning sun. Heliotropism happens during the earlier stages before the flower grows heavy with seeds.
There are tons of varieties of sunflowers available today, so there’s bound to be one that fits your garden. Choose between those with branching stems or single stems, those that produce ample pollen for pollinators or are pollen-free (best for bouquets), those that stay small or tower above the rest of the garden, or those that produce edible seeds!
A fairly fast-growing flower for their size, most sunflower varieties mature in only 80 to 95 days. The largest sunflower varieties grow to over 16 feet in height, while smaller varieties have been developed for small spaces and containers and rarely grow larger than a foot tall! The flower heads can reach over 12 inches in diameter within the large seeded varieties.
'Mammoth' is the traditional giant sunflower, sometimes growing to more than 12 feet tall.
When planting sunflowers, first and foremost, find a sunny spot! Sunflowers grow best in locations with direct sunlight (6 to 8 hours per day); they require long, warm summers to flower well.
Choose a location with well-draining soil. The planting spot shouldn’t pool with water after it rains. Otherwise, sunflowers aren’t too picky about soil, but for the best results, it shouldn’t be too compacted. They have long tap roots that need to stretch out; in preparing a bed, dig down 2 feet in depth and about 3 feet across. Sunflowers are heavy feeders, however, so the soil needs to be nutrient-rich with organic matter or composted (aged) manure. Or, work in a slow release granular fertilizer 8 inches deep into your soil. If possible, plant sunflowers in a spot that is sheltered from strong winds, perhaps along a fence or near a building. Larger varieties may become top-heavy and a strong wind can be devastating.
Sunflowers are a diverse bunch! Here are a few varieties you may want to try:
The towering ‘Mammoth’ variety is the traditional giant sunflower, sometimes growing to more than 12 feet tall. Its seeds are excellent for snacks and for feeding the birds, too.
‘Autumn Beauty’: One of the most spectacular cultivars, the ‘Autumn Beauty’ has many 6-inch flowers in shades of yellow, bronze, and mahogany on branching stems up to 7 feet tall.
‘Sunrich Gold’: A great flower for bouquets and arrangements, this sunflower grows to be about 5 feet tall and produces a single 4- to 6-inch flower. The big, no-mess, pollenless flowers have rich, golden-yellow rays and green-yellow centers.
‘Teddy Bear’: Just 2 to 3 feet tall, this small sunflower is perfect for small gardens and containers. The fluffy, deep-gold, 5-inch blossoms last for days in a vase.
Sunflowers make wonderful bouquets, but here are a few tips: 1) For indoor bouquets, cut the main stem just before its flower bud has a chance to open to encourage side blooms. 2) Cut stems early in the morning. Harvesting flowers during middle of the day may lead to flower wilting. 3) Handle sunflowers gently. The flowers should last at least a week in water at room temperature. 4) Arrange sunflowers in tall containers that provide good support for their heavy heads, and change the water every day to keep them fresh.
Fall is a prime time for sunflowers; enjoy them to the fullest!
Autumn Beauty has many 6 inch flowers in bronze and mahogany.
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