As the days get shorter in September, sunflowers remind us of bright summer days and abundant harvests.
Sunflowers (Helianthus annus) are native to both North and South America. They grow from between 5 and 12 feet tall and have large, showy flower heads.
The head of a sunflower is an inflorescence with a very tight group of directly attached disc flowers and ray flowers. The ray flowers emerge from the discs. Together these disc and ray flowers create a single flower head.
Sunflowers are heliotropic (sun turning) and their flower heads follow the sun. The Italian name for sunflower is girasole which means “sun turner.” If you drive by a field of sunflowers in the morning the flower heads will be facing east. A return trip in the afternoon finds the heads facing west.
An early morning picture of a field of sunflowers shows the flower heads still sort of droopy. They will wake up and follow the sun throughout the day.
Sunflowers grow easily from seed are fun to grow but be aware that they are very, very hungry. They use up most of the nutrients in the soil to grow so tall and showy. This overeager appetite makes them excellent flowers to use for removing toxins from the soil and they are often used to cleanse contaminants from areas that have been damaged by radiation and chemical spills.
This is a bonus for the environment, but not always so good if you are planning to plant other flowers or vegetables in your garden the following year. Make sure to compost and mulch to replenish your soil with nutrients before replanting the next season.
Annual sunflowers have very thick stems and very heavy heads. They need support by being firmly placed into chicken wire, by crossing stems and branches to support stems, or simply by using a tall vase.
SUNFLOWERS AND WATER
Sunflowers are pubescent which means their stems are covered with short, soft hairs. This will make them turn water cloudy quickly and it will need to be changed almost daily. I like to use sunflowers in a clear glass vase so that I can see when to change the water.
For a party I used a few varieties of sunflowers in a wonderful ceramic vase. Later in the week I lifted the flowers from the vase and put them into a rectangular glass vase so that I could change the water and give the stems a fresh cut daily.
In Sogetsu class the placement of sunflowers is of primary importance spacing and direction of the strong flower form must balance with branches and greens.
Watch carefully to avoid the “headlight” effect from dark centers facing front. Overlapping or changing the angles of flower faces creates a graceful rhythm. Sometimes it’s fun to remove the outer petals from the flower heads and just use the brown centers.
MIXING SUNFLOWERS WITH OTHER FLOWERS
In a bouquet of complementary colors all yellow sunflowers are the stars. They contrast beautifully with blue hydrangea and love-in-the-mist. Yellow centered sunflowers are easier to work with because they don’t have the strong contrasting brown center.
In our garden club flower show, a member created a stunning contemporary niche with sunflowers and plumbing tubing. It won first place in the show!