Next year, I am planting twice as many heirloom sunflowers. Seeds are easy to sow, plants grow effortlessly and they are a magnet for bees and butterflies. Many of the heirloom sunflowers drop their seed, and volunteer on their own while others are intentionally sown around the kitchen garden.
Perhaps the charm of the sunflower is the simplicity, yet each flower is actually thousands of tiny flowers inside the brown center, that mature into seeds. When choosing sunflowers from a catalog or seed rack, you may be daunted by the wide range of colors yet knowing the type of sunflower that will give you the ideal height and flower form helps when planning the ornamental border.
Navigating the world of sunflowers is a bit tricky, not only because there are so many to choose from but because there are different types. Some are grown for seeds or oil, others for cut flowers and are purely ornamental. There are heirlooms and hybrids, multi-branching types and single flower heads. F1 hybrids may offer longer lasting blossoms and sturdier stems yet many are pollenless, which don’t engage the pollinators the way an heirloom sunflower will do. With heirloom sunflowers, you can save the seed or let it spread around for free blooms the following year.
Sunflowers were introduced by the Spaniards in 1510, and are grown world wide mostly as an edible crop for seeds and to press into oil. Here are a few fun facts about sunflowers:
The tallest sunflower on record was over 30 feet tall.
The Guinness book of world records documented the 30-feet, 1-inch plant grown in Germany by Hans-Peter Schiffer, who has held the record twice before.
Sunflowers help soak up nuclear radiation.
Sunflower absorb toxins in the soil. Millions were planted after the devastating tsunami destroyed reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.
There are about 70 species of sunflowers.
Look beyond the stately Russian sunflower with its enormous nodding seed head, and check out the Seed Savers Exchange for a collection of heirloom favorites including one of my favorite Mexican Sunflower (orange blossom below).
There are roughly two types of sunflowers for home gardeners: the small multi- branching types such as Italian White, Autumn Beauty and Chocolate are dainty enough to grow in my kitchen garden. The larger heads and wider berth plants of Zebulon, Evening Sun and Giant Primrose are best to sow in a mass along the edge of the garden along the front gate for show stopping display.
Growing heirloom flowers is the healthier choice for the whole garden community. Waking up to goldfinch snacking on the seeds for breakfast, or watching Monarchs cluster so suck in the pollen is a reminder that we are all in this together. Save the seeds and share with friends.