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Smiling faces, sunny places

By Sereba Agiobu-Kemmer
30 July 2016   |   2:46 am
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) may be the happiest flowers in the garden. With their colorful dark centers ringed with a crown of golden petals, they brighten up even the gloomiest of days, whether planted in long rows ...

“Here and yonder, high and low,
Goldenrod and sunflowers glow,”
Robert Weeks (1840-76)

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) may be the happiest flowers in the garden. With their colorful dark centers ringed with a crown of golden petals, they brighten up even the gloomiest of days, whether planted in long rows, along a fence, massed in a sunny border, or as potted plants. Sunflowers are grown for beauty as well as harvest for seeds.

Sunflowers say ‘sunshine’ like no other plants. Their beauty was so fascinating that the Post-Impressionist Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh made a series of paintings of “Sunflowers”, the “Symphony in Blue and Yellow” (1888-1889). The initial painting, is in private collection, which an anonymous buyer paid 39 million dollars for in 1987. Sunflowers are usually tall perennial or annual plants, having big, daisy like, bright flower faces. Sunflowers are usually tall growing to a height of 300 centimeters (120inch) or more. They have one or more, wide terminal capitula (flower heads), with the bright yellow or maroon (also known as a brown/red disc florets inside.

Several ornamental cultivars of Heliantus annuus(domesticated sunflowers) have red-colored rays florets; all stem from a single original mutant, usually the florets are yellow with brown centers that ripen into heavy heads filled with seeds. Some sunflowers grow to over 16 feet in height in the wild, though there are varieties today that have been developed for small spaces and containers. Sunflowers can be grown in yellows, dark reds and orange colors.

During growth, sunflowers tilt during the day to face the sun, but stop once they begin to bloom. This tracking of the sun in young sunflower heads is called heliotropism.  By the time they are mature, sunflowers generally face east. The rough and hairy stem is branched in the upper part in wild plants, but is usually unbranched in domesticated cultivars. The petiolate leaves are dentate and often heart-shaped.

There is quite a bit of variability among the perennial species that make up the bulk of the species in the genus. Some have most, or all of the large leaves in a rosette at the base of the plant and produce a flowering stem that has leaves that are reduced in size. Most of the perennial have disc flowers that are entirely yellow, but a few have disc flowers with reddish lobes. One species H. radula lacks ray flowers altogether.

Growing Tips
Sunflowers like to grow in full sun in well-drained soil. Sunflowers have long tap root which need to be stretch out so the plants prefer well-dug, loose soil. Though they are not too fussy, sunflowers will thrive in slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline (pH 6.0 to 7.5) soil. Sunflowers are heavy feeders, so they need to be in nutrient rich soil, with organic matter or composted (aged) manure. Or work in a slow release granular fertilizer 8 inches deep into your soil.

What you need:
Choose a packet of sunflower seeds; remember to look to see how tall it may grow.
Garden gloves
A rake
A trowel
Plant label and pencil

How to grow
Sunflowers can be sown straight into the ground where they are going to flower, so make sure the space you are going to sow the seeds is weed free, by using a trowel to remove the weeds.
Rake the soils to a fine tilt (a fine crumbly texture) and make some drills 12mm deep. Leave 10cm space between each seed.
Place seeds carefully and cover them up with soil. Don’t forget to water seeds gently. As they grow, if the plants are crowded, thin them out to about 45cm (6 inches apart) leaving the strongest.
Be careful as slugs and snails like to eat the new shoots. You may like to protect the seedlings by cutting the top of a plastic bottle, placing it over your seedlings.

Water seeds everyday. They should start to sprout in about a week; sunflowers usually reach their full height in about 10 weeks.
As your sunflower begins to grow taller, you will need to help support the stem, by placing a cane near the stem, and loosely tying the cane to the plant with a string.
Watch your sunflower grow and grow and flower in about 4 months. Most flowers are remarkably tough and easy to grow as long as the soil is not water logged. Most are heat and drought-tolerant.

Many are attractive to pollinators, butterflies, birds and bees.
Some varieties provide black seeds that are used in cooking oil, margarine, cosmetics, and animal feed; they are the best sunflowers seeds for attracting the greatest variety of song birds

The bigger striped seeds are grown for snacking and as ingredient in bread and health foods. They too are used for feeding birds.
They make excellent cut flowers for floral arrangements. In the language of flowers and symbolism, sunflowers stand for “adoration, friendship and happiness”.

Recommended varieties

You might want to choose tall varieties like towering “Mammoth”, “Americana Giant”, which reach 4m tall or “Sunbeam”. A stand out bouquet flower, the ‘Van Gogh’ sunflower grows on a 5-foot plant with 5-inch flower. “Teddy Bear” 2-3ft tall is perfect for small gardens and containers. “Big Smile” is just a modest 15 inches dwarf cultivar, which is good for gardens and containers. The fluffy deep gold, 5-inch blossoms last for days in a vase.