Shower Your Garden with Sunflowers

By Vicki Spencer, Master Gardener

I had to choose one flower to symbolize summer it would be the sunflower. Anyone who has driven across Colorado’s eastern plains when sunflowers are in full bloom understands why. Acres of bright yellow flowers turn their faces toward the sun. This phenomenon, known as phototropism, was recognized in Greek mythology. According to the tale, a nymph was buried alive as punishment for envying Apollo’s love for another, but Apollo, the sun god, felt pity and turned her into a flower. She has laid in the soil watching Apollo move across the sky in his chariot ever since.

Just as Greek mythology immortalized sunflowers, so have other cultures. For instance, some Native Americans use sunflowers to represent a bountiful harvest. Some Chinese use sunflowers to represent longevity and happiness. But sunflowers are not just symbolic; they add color to gardens, hide unsightly views and provide seeds and oils for consumption.

Sunflowers are among the easiest flowers to grow in Colorado because they are tough and drought tolerant. Their main requirement is ample sunshine: at least six hours daily. Although they seem able to grow almost anywhere, their long tap roots need space to spread out. This means they will do best in well-cultivated, good draining soil. For this reason, many gardeners plant sunflowers along their vegetable gardens.

The common sunflower is an annual plant native to the central United States. Some giant forms, like the Mammoth Russian, grow up to 10 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and produce single head flowers up to 1 foot across. These magnificent flowers are beautiful to behold. They are perfect for hiding your neighbor’s clutter, and birds love their seeds.

Gardeners who prefer perennial varieties have many choices. Autumn Beauty grows 7 feet tall and produces a 6-inch flower in sunset colors of yellow, bronze and mahogany. Maximilian and Lemon Queen are also popular choices.

For cutting flowers, plant more compact, branching varieties, such as crimson red Velvet Queen, deep burgundy Moulin Rouge and Indian Blanket with deep red, yellow-tipped petals. Teddy Bear with soft, fluffy, cadmium yellow petals also makes good bouquets. Some people prefer hybrids without pollen as the bouquets will not shed on their tabletops. Popular varieties include Sunbeam in varied yellows and oranges; pale yellow Moonshadow; and bronze-petaled Cinnamon Sun.

Good bird seed varieties include Mammoth Grey Stripe, Paul Bunyan and Aztec Gold. Stagger planting from early spring to midsummer to extend seed availability. If you want sunflower seeds to eat yourself, plant Humongous or Skyscraper and stake stalks as they get heavy with seeds. When petals begin to fade, cover seed heads and flowers with gauze or cheesecloth to protect from birds and squirrels. After drying seeds on the plant, rub them off and separate from the chaff. Rinse seeds in a bowl and soak overnight in 1 gallon of water with 1 cup of salt. Dry again in a 250 degree oven for 4 to 5 hours, stirring occasionally. Cool before eating and store in sealed, dry containers.

With their beauty and nutritional value, these seeds can allow you can get maximum enjoyment from your sunflowers this summer.

Gardener Vicki Spencer has an eclectic background in conservation, water, natural resources and more.