Super simple sunflowers

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJune 16, 2014 

Though Helen Keller had never actually seen a sunflower, she still learned something from these amazing plants. “Keep your face to the sunshine so you cannot see the shadows,” she wrote. “That’s what the sunflowers do.”

Mammoth sunflower buds will indeed follow the sun’s path every day like clockwork. This is an amazing demonstration of a scientific concept known as phototropism, which is the response of plants to the sun. Once the terminal flower bud is ready to open, the head becomes stationary at that point and never moves again.

There is no better plant to help us all rise out of the most brutal winter in recent memory. It’s such an easy plant to grow virtually every novice should give it a try. The key is to understand the many types of sunflowers to select the most ideal ones for your garden, your family and your sense of style.

The most well-known is the Mammoth sunflower with its amazing tall stalks and a single, enormous dinner-plate-sized flower on top. Mammoth produces the largest seed and is preferred by those who want to make their own snacks at harvest time. Not only can they reach 15 feet tall, the movement of the head teaches much about plant responses to solar orientation. Then harvest the seed, roast them in your oven, and enjoy healthy home grown snacks with the kids.

The sunflower is native to the Midwest where Native Americans first cultivated them on the flood plains of the Missouri and other great rivers. They too saved seed from the best of the current crop, selecting only from flower heads with the largest kernels. Over time their seed strains produced larger flowers but fewer of them. When these strains were explored by early plant breeders, they were hybridized to further increase flower size. The Russians needed a short season oil producing crop so their breeders developed what is now the Mammoth.

Another group are called branching sunflowers developed for cut flowers. These retain the size and open habit of their wild ancestors with color changes in the flower. Branching varieties produce flowers about six inches across with colors in sunset hues from dark red to orange and even rusty brown. Most seed houses offer these branching types. Start with packets of mixed varieties such as the Autumn Beauties strains to get a great range of colors for less than $3.

It’s easy to tuck seed of branching sunflowers into your vegetable garden, flower beds and shrub borders. They don’t need staking and the colors remain bright for a long time. They’re ideal for back of the beds where their blossoms rise above the shorter plants while the lanky stems are screened from view.

If you snip the flowers off the moment the petals wither, this stimulates new buds to form for an extended bloom season. If you cut them while in full bloom you get the same results with a bonus of bright flowers indoors. In the process, note the dense clusters of tiny flowers that make up the center of the bloom called a “disk” which is organized into a most amazing spiral pattern.

Grow branching sunflowers in the view from your kitchen sink for a daily show. After the petals fade, don’t cut the flowers if you love birds. Instead let the densely packed mass of seed mature so song birds come to hang on the flowers as they peck away at the seed crop.

For those who have never grown flowers from seed, the sunflower is a gateway plant that opens us all to the miracles in the garden. No other is such a huge lure to pollinators for the price of a single seed packet. But if you really want some fun, plant a bag of black oil sunflower bird seed in a barren or neglected corner of your yard. There it becomes the genesis of an entire sunflower forest that transforms your property into bona fide habitat.

MAUREEN GILMER is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Contact her at

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