Sunflower

Photographs by Sabina Rüber

Helianthus annuus Red Sun

Red Sun

Helianthus annuus Italian White

Italian White

Helianthus annuus Valentine

Valentine

As a North American native, the sunflower has been cultivated for thousands of years as a food source, the seeds ground for flour and oil (as they are still are today). For our purposes though, sunflowers are grown as an ornamental plant – with the added bonus that they provide a wonderful food source for the birds at the end of the season. They couldn’t be easier to cultivate. Simply put the seed in the ground, water, and wait for it to shoot up, which it will do at an incredible rate, growing almost visibly day by day.

The varieties I'm most interested in for cutting are the multi-branching plants with smaller flowers. From deep rusty red to pale yellow and cream, there is an increasing range of colours to choose from, aside from the classic sunflower yellow. ‘Red Sun’ has lovely velvety dark flowers up to 10cm in diameter on a plant up to 1.8m tall, while 'Claret' is not quite as tall, with smaller flowers. At the other end of the colour spectrum, ‘Italian White’ and ‘Vanilla Ice’ are two pale and interesting sunflowers derived from H. debilis, the cucumber-leaf sunflower. The flowers are smaller and more elegant than other sunflowers and perfect for cutting, and the plants are multi-branching, producing a profusion of flowers over the course of the summer. Somewhere in the middle is ‘Valentine’, a beautiful pale primrose-yellow sunflower with a dark centre. This year I'm trying apricot-brown 'Double Dandy' and two-tone 'Magic Roundabout' which has pale coffee-and-cream outer petals and rusty-red centres.

Sunflowers are easy to grow in most well-drained soils in full sunshine, but they will grow even taller and stronger if they have a rich soil, so it pays to add plenty of well-rotted compost or manure to the soil before planting. (If you are growing them competitively you can also feed the plants with liquid fertiliser once the flowers have formed). They can either be sown under cover in modules or small pots, in early to mid spring (in the warmth at 18-21C), or directly into the soil in later spring. Watch out for the slugs if you are planting direct, as their newly emerging leaves will be open targets. 

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