All About Sunflowers

Take a new look at sunflowers, including some exciting and unexpected varieties.

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Blooming Yellow Sunflowers

When you think of sunflowers, do you think of huge yellow blooms on towering stalks? If so, then prepare to expand your horticultural horizons.

Plant geneticist Tom Heaton has been breeding new varieties of sunflowers for more than 25 years, and he is responsible for almost all the latest species of sunflowers found throughout the world, such as this American giant hybrid.

But Americans' love affair with sunflowers is changing. Where once gardeners desired tall, they now crave small. And the newest little flower to capture the hearts of gardeners aren't daisies, they're the new compact sunflowers.

"For anyone who ever was afraid to grow these gentle giants because 12- to 15-foot heights seemed a bit overwhelming, there are now several new knee-high sunflowers that feature several blooms per branch," says master gardener Paul James.

Take the Munchkin series, meaning small or dwarf sunflowers as an example. "These kinds of sunflowers are ideal because they are not going to block your view of your backyard," says Heaton. "They're not difficult to take out of your garden at the end of the season, and they're really like zinnias or dahlias."

Height isn't the only feature undergoing a change. Today, sunflowers come in more than yellow. In fact, here's something you don't see often, a nearly all-white sunflower. "I think most people associate sunflowers with being yellow, but really we have all the colors that you would see associated with daisies or chrysanthemums," says Heaton.

Heaton has developed Indian Basket, Lemon Éclair, Inferno, Terra Cotta and Petite Pastel. "The challenge," he says, "is taking a traditional sunflower that everyone perceives as a sunflower and completely changing it to where the average person says 'I can't believe that's a sunflower!' "

The best sunflower types have been combined to incorporate more branches, better petal types and even pollenless varieties like these.

"So now you can find shorter plants with multiple stems, hip new colors, plus sunflowers for allergy sufferers that love the flowers but hate the sniffles," says Paul. To create the pollenless sunflowers, Heaton successfully bred out the anthers (the fluffy area in the center of the flower where the pollen lies) from the flower. The resulting blooms last much longer because they are not expending energy producing seed. "And all these diverse attributes help make sunflowers so conducive to the needs of today's gardeners," Paul says.

Whether you grow the striking, sky-scraping sentinels or the more demure dwarf varieties from transplants or seeds, sunflowers are easy to grow. Begin by making a small trench about thumb deep in the soil with your finger. Sprinkle a small amount of water along the trench to moisten the soil. Drop the seeds into the trench. Heaton recommends overplanting sunflower seeds so that when the seeds come up, you can thin the plants to the proper distance. Cover the seeds with dry soil, and do not water for five to seven days until the seedlings start to break through the soil. If you water on top, the soil crusts, and the seedlings have trouble coming up through the dirt.

Munchkin sunflowers are also available 30 days old in six-packs. Dig a hole about the size of the plug, sprinkle with water lightly and plant the sunflower. Consider planting dwarf sunflower varieties in a container for a patio focal point, or cut a few stems for a spectacular sunflower arrangement indoors.

The giant hybrids need some extra fertilizer to help them grow tall. Heaton uses a liquid fertilizer once a week with both micro and macro nutrients. Mix one capful to every gallon or so of water. Avoid drowning the stem by watering around the base of the sunflower stalk. Heaton suggests forming a trench about one foot from the stalk base and pouring the water in the trench.

If you're hoping to eat the seeds before the birds do, protect the seed head with some sort of mass covering. Heaton suggests using an old onion bag from the grocery store. And when you're ready to harvest the seeds, simply cut the seed head off, and rub your hand over the head to get rid of any old flower parts. Next, scrape the flower head over an old grate placed on top of a baking pan to dislodge and collect the seeds.

Allow the seeds to dry for about four to five days, and either share them with the birds, or store in a paper bag placed in a cool dry place until the next planting season. Remember that bees love sunflowers almost as much as birds do, so there could be some cross-pollination that you're not aware of. If the colors produced next year from seeds harvested this year are a little different than you expected, you may want to go back to buying seeds in packets to make sure you get the color you wanted.

"This traditional favorite is undergoing a modern makeover with more stems, more colors, more manageable sizes, and more surprises on the way for home gardeners," Paul says.

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