BLESSINGS IN BLOOM: Sunflower
No flower is more recognized than the sunflower. We are introduced as young children when we learn its name and plant the seeds. Americans are obsessed with its cheerful disposition. It shows up in our kitchens; stamped on wallpaper, and sewn into tablecloth patterns. They are in our living rooms on throw pillows, and in picture frames or freshly arranged in vases. Every young girl has plucked its petals one-at-a-time reciting, “He loves me, he loves me not,” somehow believing that this wonderful flower from God knows whether or not this boy is her one true love. If it lands on “not” she clutches at the next sunflower to begin her chant over again . . . just to make sure.
Sunflowers are native to North America and were cultivated for food by native people for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers. When the flowers were introduced to Europe they eventually spread to Russia where they were accepted and adapted. Cherished for their high oil content, in 1860, Russia was largely responsible for increasing oil content from 28 percent to almost 50 percent. The high-oil lines from Russia were reintroduced to the U.S. after World War II, which sparked new interest in the crop. Today, sunflower farms are slowly moving westward into dryer regions but 85 percent of North American sunflower seeds are produced in North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Abroad, Europe and Russia produce over 60 percent of the world’s sunflowers.
Sunflowers are sturdy plants with bright blooms. They are available as perennials and annuals and range in color from chestnut red to pale yellow. There are giant varieties that can grow 10 feet tall, dwarf types that stop at 2-2 ½ feet, cut flowers that won’t drop pollen, 10-inch flower heads, 4-inch flower heads, too many variations to recognize. However, there are a few that are worth mentioning. The common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is an annual plant that has a coarse texture with hairy stems and 2-3-inch wide flowers. They bloom from July to September and are primarily grown for their seeds.
The perennial sunflower Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus) is a good choice for the garden. These produce bright yellow flowers with four inch blooms and grow easily in our diocese. Their tubers are edible and are sold in markets as “sunchokes”. These tubers should be dug up and replanted every 2-3 years to maintain high quality and good taste.
The Maximillian sunflower (H. maximiliani) is also a reliable perennial that grows well in Colorado. This plant forms a clump 3 feet wide and can have 10 foot tall stems that are topped with 3-4 inch yellow flowers. These are documented as drought tolerant once established but conflicting research states they produce better blooms with moderate irrigation.
Sunflower seeds should be planted in late spring, after the ground has warmed. Cover smaller seeds with one-half inch of soil; larger seeds with one inch of soil. They should germinate in five to ten days. Thin the seedlings according to instructions listed on the seed packet. Full sun is necessary for healthy growth. Six hours of direct sunlight per day is optimal. Plants should receive one inch of water per week, either from rain or irrigation. There are few diseases or insects that have a significant impact on sunflowers.
Sunflowers are pleasing to the eye. They are a happy reminder of summer. Their centers provide seeds for us to eat.
Their stalk reminds us to stand up straight and tall. And their bright, yellow petals remind us that “He loves us, yes, He loves us forever.”
(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs)