Coarse, sturdy plants grown for their familiar, colorful blooms in summer and fall. Most are prime subjects for cut flowers. Plants are tough and widely adapted. Perennial kinds spread rapidly and may become invasive. Tall sunflowers may need staking.
Annual. The wild ancestor of today’s familiar sunflowers, native to much of the central U.S. and southward to Central America, is a coarse, hairy plant with 2–3-in.-wide flowers. It has been bred to produce giant plants as well as a host of smaller varieties for cut flowers. Blooms may be yellow, red, orange, or creamy white; some have several colors on each flower, others are frilled or doubled. Centers are brown, dark purple, or nearly black.
Giant forms grow 10–15 ft. tall and 2 ft. wide and typically produce a single huge head (sometimes more than a foot across) consisting of a circle of short rays with a brown central cushion of seeds. Sunflowers for cutting come on compact, branching plants and bear 4–8-in.-wide blooms in a wide variety of colors. They fall into two basic categories: pollen-bearing types and pollenless ones. Kinds without pollen have the advantage of not shedding on tabletops. Some annual sunflowers are bred to produce especially large seeds. New varieties and hybrids come on the market each year.
For children, annual sunflowers are fun and easy to grow. People eat the roasted seeds and birds enjoy raw ones in autumn and winter. Sow seeds in spring where plants are to grow. Large-flowered kinds need rich, moist soil. Attract bees.
Perennial. Fast-growing hybrid to 6–8 ft. tall and 3–4 ft. wide, with long, narrow leaves. Produces many 2-in.-wide, semidouble, pale yellow flowers with a dark brown center. Use at the back of a casual border or in combination with large ornamental grasses. Takes moist or dry soil. Does not require staking, provided the soil is not too rich and the plants are not overfertilized.
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