Saturday, August 3, 2013
Sunflower - Helianthus annuus
The large, yellow flowers of the Sunflower are the perfect metaphor for summer. Beginning as a seed planted in spring, it grows in leaps and bounds as if racing with time to reach the sky and open its sunny flower face at the height of summer. As summer winds down, the flower heads droop, heavy with their crop of ripened seeds. Often the giants of the garden, sunflowers are planted among tomatoes and peppers and often as a support for pole beans. But they also look great in flower beds along with hollyhocks, brown-eyed Susans and Echinacea.
Native to the Americas, 5,000 year old fossils of the sunflower were discovered in Arizona and New Mexico. Images of sunflowers were found on temple walls, ceremonial costumes, jewelry and pottery of the Incas and Aztecs. Archaeologists theorize that the Native Americans domesticated it even before corn. Seeds were brought to Europe by the Spanish explorers. It was in Russia that the plants were first grown for commercial use. Sunflower oil is used for cooking, as fuel, to make candles, soaps and lotions for the skin. The seeds are used as food for humans and animals.
The most common sunflower is the very tall, yellow petaled, dark brown center variety; most often Russian Mammoth. However you can find a variety to suit your taste and your garden plot. Some are dwarf, others have large flower heads or multiple branches of smaller ones. Color range from a pale yellow (almost white) to dark shades of burgundy. Easy to grow, sunflowers’ only requirements are full sun and adequate water.
A wonderful plant to grow with children, their excitement and interest will be rewarded by the plant’s rapid growth. A sunflower plant can be measured each day to check its progress. One gardener writes of how her children would tie a ribbon on the stem of a sunflower plant when it got to the same height of the child. Then they would watch as the ribbon rose higher each day.
Sharon Lovejoy tells the delightful story of planting a sunflower house in her classic book, Sunflower Houses. If you have the room you may want to plant one next spring with your children, grandchildren or neighbor’s children. Mark out an area large enough to be a play house or at least large enough for 2 or 3 people to stand in. Remove any grass or weeds from the perimeter, loosen the soil, sow a tall variety along with morning glory seeds, alternating them as you place them in the trenches. Be sure to leave space for an opening to the playhouse. Cover with a half inch of soil and water every day. When the sunflowers are taller than the tallest person, suspend twine from the top of the stem of a plant from one corner of the playhouse to the other and criss-cross them. The morning glories will continue to grow along these strings creating the “roof”.
If you only have space for a pot, grow a dwarf variety. You will be rewarded with visits from bumble bees, butterflies, goldfinches and cardinals. And it is fun to watch as the flower turns to face the direction of the sun.
It is not too late to enjoy the sunny faces of this summer flower. Many garden centers sell them in pots and you can buy them as cut flowers at the farmers’ market. Cut flowers last about a week. Enjoy them indoors and out. Though the petals fade, the seeds will continue to ripen. At this point, hang them on a shed, garage, from a tree limb, secured in a hedge or wherever you will be able to view it from your house. You will be amazed at how quickly the birds (and squirrels) show up!
Challenge: take a photo of a child standing next to a giant sunflower plant or of a sunflower with a bee, butterfly, bird or other visitor on it.