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Ask a Master Gardener: Our Beloved Sunflowers

BY: Jennifer McDonald, Mobile County Master Gardener

Sunflowers are easily one of the most beloved flowers of summer. From the classic cheerful yellow blooms to the striking orange varieties and moody dark reds, these colorful blooms have inspired countless smiles and dreamy sighs.

Although there are perennial species that grow as weeds in some parts of the country, sunflowers are typically grown as annuals. They are usually sown in spring and bloom later in spring and through the summer, depending on planting date. For months of enjoyment, try planting them in succession every couple of weeks for a continuous supply of gorgeous blooms.

As their name implies, sunflowers love the sun! They need at least 6 hours a day and can tolerate even more. Be careful not to crowd them because it will keep them from getting adequate sunlight.

Depending on the variety, they can be as short as a foot tall or as tall as over 15 feet. The largest sunflower on record was grown in Germany and reached over 30 feet tall!

They grow very quickly and the largest varieties, including the giant mammoth sunflower, can reach 15 feet in just a few months. While the stems are often hefty enough to allow the plant to stand on its own, it’s best to stake them or grow them along a fence for extra support. I have lost so many of my most beautiful sunflowers to gusty thunderstorms. However, if you’re lucky and the roots stay intact, sometimes you can just stand them up again and they will keep on shining.

Dwarf varieties, which are lovely in pots or cutting gardens, often contain multiple blooms on each stalk. Many dwarf sunflowers don’t produce pollen, making them ideal for cut flowers indoors.

I like to plant a wide variety of sunflowers every year, in a bed of their own and also dotted throughout my vegetable garden. Though I love them all, I have a special place in my heart for the giants. One of my favorite parts of summer is wending my way through those towering beauties as I walk through my garden. They have a whimsical, almost magical quality that makes me feel like I’m in a fairy tale or perhaps an adventure story about a character who was accidentally shrunk.

One of the most fascinating characteristics of sunflowers is heliotropism, which means their flower heads move with the sun as it crosses the sky. Young sunflowers’ heads turn from east to west during the day, and then reorient themselves to wait for the sun to rise the next morning. This trait leads to the charming myth that the face of the cheerfully optimistic sunflower always turns to greet the sun.

The “turning” is caused by the elongating of different sides of the stem at various times of the day, in an internal process controlled by circadian rhythms. Essentially the sunflower has an internal clock that modulates its growth in a way that is advantageous for the plant. In one of the countless displays of the wonders of natural adaptation, the east-facing flowers heat up more quickly in the morning, which increases their attractiveness to bees and other pollinating insects.

This trait diminishes as the stems mature and become woody. Eventually the heads of the flowers, especially in larger varieties, turn to face the ground. That tendency helps protect the maturing seeds from birds.

The flower heads are made up of hundreds or more tiny flowers called florets. Once pollinated by insects and birds, they produce edible seeds. Roasted sunflower seeds are a very popular snack food, often salted or sold in a variety of flavors. Many others food products are made from sunflower seeds including nut butters, bread, and cooking oil. The cake that remains after processing the seeds is used as livestock feed.

These lovely plants have many practical uses, but perhaps their most esteemed role is to take their place as the crowning glory of your summer garden. That’s quite an accomplishment for a flower that’s so remarkably easy to grow.

Obviously, your chances of a gorgeous and healthy plant are better with thoughtful care, but in many cases growing a sunflower can be as easy as simply pushing a seed a couple inches into the soil, giving it a little water to start out, and then leaving it to its own devices.

Give it a shot, and perhaps you’ll soon be experiencing your own dreamy sighs, watching your glorious bloom smiling at a summer sunrise.

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