Everyone can enjoy a little sunflower power this summer. And these's no shortage of options: You can plant sunflowers that are tall or tiny, puffy or fluffy, tawny red or creamy white, and even varieties that are ideal for gardeners with allergies. This is one flower that has a place in every garden.
I'm convinced that the absolute best garden sunflowers are the 4- to 6-foot branching types, like Sonja, a perky orange-gold flower with strong stems and clean prickly foliage, and Soraya, a slightly larger and later-blooming flower. If you're looking for early bloomers stick to the 4-foot-tall Prado Red and the sturdy, long-lasting yellow Ikarus. Sunrise is a big favorite with pollinators, Ring of Fire is impressive with its great numbers of comparatively small red-ringed flowers, and the clear yellow Valentine is a reliable and beautiful 5-footer.
If you favor red over the typical yellow, Chianti is "a deeper red than any of the others," says Margaret Thorson of Thousand Flower Farm, in Washington and the flower is also pollen-free. Thorson favors Italian White for its elegant creamy-petaled, dark-centered blooms and Indian Blanket, which is a festive bicolor. "But sometimes," she notes, "the very nicest ones are those that come up from seed the birds missed the year before."
Tom Heaton, a California plant geneticist, began breeding sunflowers decades ago with the goal of making the stems strong enough so they do not topple in late-summer storms. Heaton's American Giant is a single-stemmed goliath with huge leaves and Kong is the branched version.
It seems that certain sunflowers are naturally pollenless, or male-sterile. That is, unlike most plants, which have both male and female fertile flowers, they possess only female characteristics. Breeders create hybrids by fertilizing a male-sterile plant with pollen from a different variety. The lack of pollen not only makes the breeding of hybrids easily doable but it also makes a flower better suited for cutting. Pollenless sunflowers don't shed yellow dust, they are less apt to be allergenic, and they last longer in a vase.
When the flowers are fertilized, Heaton explains, "they develop into seeds from the outside inward. That means the outside flowers are drawing resources from the plant and the petals as they fill in and become seeds." He points out that pollenless flowers have abundant nectar and therefore are still attractive to bees and butterflies. They will make seeds just like any other sunflower if there are others with pollen nearby, though the seeds will almost certainly yield flowers with different traits, if planted.
If your garden is too small for giants, or if you grow in a container garden, you can plant dwarf sunflower varieties. Some of these dwarf hybrids resemble dahlias or furry yellow pets more than they do the typical sunflower. Baby Bear, for example, is a fuzzy lovable shorty when freshly blooming and Music Box is a combination of mini-sunflowers. The mighty dwarfs have just two drawbacks, though. The blooms, like those of tall sunflowers, face the ground once they mature, so you find yourself looking down on the backs of the flowers, and unlike their taller brethren or other tall branching flowers like zinnias, the side-branching flowers often don't top the first bloom but stay at a lower height.
Studies have shown that when sunflowers were picked just as the petals were unfolding, they lasted more than a week, but less than two, in a vase. Standouts among varieties evaluated include Munchkin, Moonlight, and F1 Premier, all of which are pollenless. For a continuous supply of cut sunflowers, plant seeds every two weeks advises Keith Baldwin, horticulture specialist at North Carolina State University. Consider single-stemmed sunflowers a crop rather than a garden plant.
The sunflower is one of the few crop species that originated in North America. It traveled with early settlers to Europe, then to Russia where it was adopted and transformed. After Russian breeders nearly doubled the oil content in the seeds by selection breeding, it was brought back, newly respected, to the United States. Scientists see a bright and shiny future for our native sunflower. These plants are used to filter contaminated water and to extract lead from soil. The seed oil can be used in diesel engines, and now scientists from the University of Leeds have discovered a way to extract hydrogen from the oil as a potential means of powering a hydrogen car.