PRIMGHAR, Iowa — This year, gardening was dominated by cool, early temperatures, followed by a hot and dry summer. But, amidst this, the sunflowers in my garden were a continual bright spot among numerous gardening challenges.
The bright yellow flowers of the sunflower resemble the sun. Their scientific name (Helianthus) means sun-like as Helios means “sun” and Anthos means “flower.” Sunflowers are native to the United States dating back to 2300 B.C. with the Native Americans. Today, sunflowers are grown for a variety of purposes – oil, bird seed, snacks, cut flowers and natural beauty in the landscape.
This was my first year of growing sunflowers so I’ve learned a lot. Luckily, they are easy to grow. About all they require is direct sun and well-prepared, fertile soil. Once established, they are quite drought tolerant which was evident from their growth in my garden! However, I learned that if they get very tall, staking may be required.
There are a lot of varieties to choose from varying in height, flower color and form. Colors include yellow, cream, orange, rose, red, burgundy and bi-color. The flowers range from 3-4 inches in diameter to more than 12 inches and may be single or double.
Sunflowers are typically classified into four groups based on height or use. Giant cultivars reach 8 feet or more and may require staking. Semi-dwarf cultivars range from 3 to 8 feet and usually do not require staking. Dwarf types are 3 feet or less.
The fourth group, the pollen less cultivars is used primarily for cut flowers. Pollen free types do not contain the bright yellow pollen that stains cloth. Their heights vary from 2 to 8 feet with a variety of flower colors.
Sunflowers normally reach maturity 70-100 days after planting. The heads can be harvested when they face downward and the inner petals (flowers) can be easily rubbed off. At this time, place the seed head in a paper bag and hang in a dark, dry, well-ventilated location. Within a couple of weeks, the seed should be ready to roast or use as bird seed.
As for me, I intend to watch their yellow heads bobbing in the wind and the bees and butterflies collecting nectar from them. This is truly nature at its best!
— Beth Doran, Iowa Master Gardener
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
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