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Smiling faces in Sunny Places

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Sunflowers (Helianthus Spp.) have a wonderful way of requiring little but giving so much in return.

Their sturdy vertical nature is perfect for the smallest of gardens.

They are pollinator’s favorite and of course produce lovely cut flowers as well as seeds for saving and eating.

The smiling faces of Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) growing in your garden are sure to lighten up even the gloomiest of days, whether planted in a long row along a fence or massed in sunny border or potted specimen, even as volunteers by the roadside.

With the increasing interest in ornamental, sunflowers and several million acres of land around the world devoted to it as a commercial crop for oil seed production, it’s hard to imagine sunflowers as an unpopular plant.

Short History of Sunflowers

The origin it is found throughout America. Native Americans cultivated and were using wild sunflower for food and medicine for at least 8,000 years.

Thus, sunflower cultivation may predate the “Three Sisters” of corn, beans and squash.

The meaty seeds of sunflowers were eaten raw or roasted and pounded into a meal for making bread or gruel.

The oil extracted from the seeds was used for cooking and as skin lotion and hair conditioner.

Yellow dye made from the flower petals and black or blue dye from the seeds was used for body paint and to color clothing.

The sunflower gets its name from the Greek words “Helios” meaning Sun and “Anthos” meaning flower.

There are some 67 species within the Helianthus genius.

Most oil seeds and ornamental sunflowers are Helianthus annuus.

In the last ten years, three new types of sunflowers have been introduced into the market. The first type has a sturdy central stem that produces multiple branches with many flowers.

The result is a showy garden plant that is excellent for cutting.

Staking is not required. The second type is a dwarf plant that reaches only 1 to 2 feet tall.

These dwarf varieties are wonderful for use in small gardens and containers. The third type is “Pollen-less” varieties bred for use as cut flowers.

Sunflower pollen stains just about anything the pollen contacts thus limiting their uses as cut flower.

The pollen-less types are cleaner and have a longer shelf life making them excellent cut flowers.

Though seeds may be produced on these new types, it is not large enough to bother saving.

Choose the Right Sunflower Variety

When growing sunflowers, it is important to choose the right varieties for your purpose.

Types of Sunflowers

Everyone is familiar with the huge, dark-centered, sunshine-yellow sunflowers that grow on towering six to eight foot tall stalks.

The world’s tallest sunflower measured 9.17m (30 feet, inch) and was grown in 2014 by a German, Hans-Peter Schiffer, but do you know that some varieties top off at a modest 15 inches?

There are red, pink, white, bronze, orange and bi-color sunflowers.

The shorter, small-flowered varieties (such as golden “Teddy Bear” and the dwarf “Music Box” with cream to yellow bi-color blooms) are popular with flower arrangers and perfect for small gardens and containers.

By planting giant sunflowers, you can grow a beautiful privacy screen in one season, create a child’s play house and secret spaces in the garden, grow a hedge or achieve a world record.

These huge sunflower varieties grow up to a foot each week once their roots are established.

Their flowers are huge too and can be as big as a dinner plate. One giant variety is “Mammoth Russian” grow from 8 to 14 feet and have flowers 10-20 inches wide.
Hybrid Varieties

Hybrid Sunflowers have been bred especially for floristry and giants for sunflower competitions.

The flowers are uniform and have many features that make them ideal for growing competition- size sunflowers that don’t need staking.

However, you wont be able to save the seed year after year with hybrid varieties as many were created using sterile male to replace the female parent.

Hybrid sunflowers grow to amazing heights in the climate that they were bred for, some over 20 feet, due to hybrid vigor.

Examples are Sunzilla (16to 24 feet tall, 14 inch flower), Kong (up to 16 feet tall, 10 inches flower), Paul Bunyan (15 feet, 20 inch flower)

Sunflower Uses

Today, acres of sunflowers are grown for the florist industry and for seed production.

Some varieties provide small black seeds that are used in cooking oil, margarine, cosmetics, and animal feed; they are the best sunflower seeds for attracting the greatest varieties of songbirds.

The bigger striped seeds are grown for snacking and as an ingredient in bread and health foods.

They too, are used for feeding bird especially larger species.

Growing Sunflower

Sunflowers are heliotropic, they direct their growth in response to sunlight: Sunflowers are heat-tolerant, resistant to pests and beautiful. You can even harvest them for seed.

An annual plant, sunflowers have big daisy-like flower faces of bright yellow petals (and occasionally red, multi-colored) and brown centers that ripen into heavy heads filled with seeds.

Tall and coarse, the plants have creeping or tuberous roots and large, bristly leaves.

Most Sunflowers are remarkably tough and easy to grow as long as the soil is not waterlogged. Most are heat and drought tolerant.

Planting

Sunflowers are grown from seed. Sunflowers are easy to grow provided they have direct sun and well- prepared fertile soil, they will yield large flower heads and the meatiest seeds.

Tall growing large varieties should be thinned to stand 2 to 2½ feet apart in the garden and staked to help support the seed head under windy conditions.

Sunflowers grow best in locations with direct sunlight (6-8 hours per day); they prefer long, hot days to flower well.

Sunflowers have long tap roots that need to stretch out, so plants prefer well-dug out, loose, well-draining soil; in preparing a bed, dig down 3feet in depth and about 3 feet across to ensure that the soil isn’t too compact.

Though they are not too fussy, sunflowers thrive in slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline soil (pH 6.0 to 7.5)

Sunflowers are heavy feeders so before planting, the soil needs to be nutrient rich.

Amend the soil with organic matter or composted (aged) manure.

Fill the dug hole with layers of compost, regular garden soil and manure or work in a slow-release granular fertilizer 8 inches deep into your soil.

This will help promote optimum plant growth.

Watering

Keeping the ground moist with frequent watering until sunflowers are above the ground.

Once the plants become established and are growing well, they should be watered deeply once a week.

Mulching

Mulch the soil well to hold in moisture and inhibit weeds.

If possible, put seeds in a spot that is sheltered from strong winds, perhaps along a fence or near a building.

Before planting, decide whether or not you want to grow a fun sunflower tower.

Days to Maturity

75 to 120 days or more to produce viable seeds.

Some Benefits of Growing Sunflowers

Sunflowers of all stripes offer nectar and pollen food for pollinators.
Since sunflowers grow so fast, they can create a privacy hedge, shade or even play environment within a couple of months of planting.

Sunflowers also can provide seeds for snacking on, for bird seed and pressing for sunflower oil.

Growing sunflowers is a quick way to beautify your yard, while shielding unsightly areas.

Sunflowers increase the interest in your garden landscape since they look beautiful at all stages of growth.

With the wide assortment of old traditional tall yellow sunflowers or a colorful mix of tall and short new sunflower varieties available, surely one or more of these gorgeous happy flowers should find their way into your garden.

The happy faces are sure to bring a smile to yours.


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