An American plant, sunflowers are a cheerful and recognizable symbol of late summer. Taken to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, sunflowers were commercialized in Russia the very early 19th century for oil and human consumption. Single-flowered, large sunflowers were the result of these efforts. Sunflowers have been cultivated by native peoples since pre-Columbian times — circa 3000 B.C., — and were used for food and medicine. Today they are used for many purposes — from oil, birdseed and human food to animal feed and fuel. There are about 14 species of annual wild sunflowers, all multibranched and flowered. During summer, a drive through much of the U.S. will reveal many growing by the side of the road. Helianthus annuus, the domesticated species, is the most commonly grown sunflower, and has been bred for much larger heads. Ornamental sunflowers with a single stock and multiflowered heads are very popular with home gardeners. They have flowers from 6 to 10 inches across in colors from pale yellow to peach, mahogany and red, with new varieties coming out each year. When these sunflowers are finished blooming after about one month, it always feels like a loss.
If sunflowers appeal to you, try growing some of the wild multibranched sunflowers listed below. Long-flowering, these varieties bloom for a solid two to three months. Full sun is essential. Bees love the flowers, and goldfinches and the Oak Titmouse love the seeds. Their antics while feeding are so entertaining you may want to pull up a chair and watch.
Serpentine Sunflower (Helianthus bolanderi)
The serpentine sunflower is a little known native annual sunflower from California and Oregon that should be widely grown. A perfect 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide, it has dense deep green foliage covered with cheerful sunflower blooms held just above the foliage — from the ground up. Ever-blooming from May-September, bee and butterfly friendly, with no need of deadheading, and heat and drought resistant, it is the perfect annual plant for a sunny situation. It will grow in poor soils, but does very well in fertile soils and is best in well-drained situations. It can be planted as a single specimen, or en masse as a summertime annual hedge. Seeds can be hard to find. Annie’s Annuals (anniesannuals.com) and Perennials Nursery in Richmond carries the plants in spring, and will ship.
The Japanese Sunflower (Helianthus argophyllus)
Also known as the Silver-leaf Sunflower, this variety is not from Japan, but is native to Texas, Florida and North Carolina. It is a 6-foot-tall and 4- to 5-feet-wide multibranched sunflower with midsized leaves and dense growth. Branching is robust and begins from the ground level. The soft silvery/white foliage is what sets this sunflower apart from the rest. The leaves and stems are covered with silvery, fine hairs that give the whole plant a distinctive appearance that makes it absolutely stand out from other sunflowers. The flowers are 6 inches across and are a deep yellow with a chocolate-colored center disc. This sunflower starts blooming in July and continues nonstop through September. It is very heat resistant, drought resistant and needs full sun. Too much water can cause the branches to get heavy enough to break. Compost makes the plant more robust and will prolong bloom. Annie’s Annuals has the plants early in the spring and though spring. The seed company Select Seeds (http://www.selectseeds.com) sells the seeds as Sunflower “Gold and Silver.”