The sunflower is mine, in a way.”
― Vincent van Gogh
Sunflowers, those bright yellow flowers on tall stalks, bring a beautiful splash of colour to any garden and they are relatively easy to maintain. There are some 82-plus native species of sunflowers or Helianthus in North America. Several of the more common species stand out above the others.
The common sunflower (H.annuus) has a large radiating head or inflorescence. Growing to great heights on a rigid stalk, this species can serve several purposes to the garden planner. A backdrop to the garden close to the bordering fence, a corner patch within the lot line or a row along the foundation of the house nestled around a bird feeder, or an arch or ornamental centrepiece that will be viewed in the winter are just a few ideas.
Use a rich soil to help these plants to gain height and a mulch to keep the moisture trapped. Flowers “radiate sunshine” in mid-summer and last into the autumn.
The composite flower is actually a collection of flowers or florets that circle the centre. The larger the flower head the more likely you are going to have a multi-collection of compact seeds forming within the head.
The head dries as the fall weather arrives and turns to a brown colouration. Stalks remain rigid after freezing. Leave the stalks in the ground over winter and the mature black or striped seeds will attract winter birds such as the black-capped chickadee to selectively remove and eat the seeds one by one, discarding those of less interest.
The tall dried stalks serve as a windbreak, a perching or feeding station for wildlife or just a dramatic winter scene when the snow starts to fly. Dried stalks are relatively easy to pull out of the ground in early spring. Then prepare the soil and plant new seed or use the samplers collected from the parent flower last year. Portions of the dried stalk can be used for row markers in the garden or as kindling for open fires.
There are other types of sunflower species that can be used to enhance the garden. The perennial sunflower is sometimes called helianthus . This species is a genetically modified hybrid species that has mixed domestic and wild sunflower gene compositions. This modification selects for attractive flowers, good resilience in growth or other traits to enhance a particular feature. Planting perennial sunflowers results in a multi-stalked flower with many bright golden yellow flowers that glisten in the sun. The plant itself can take up a fair bit of space, so allow at least a square meter for this species. They are not as tall as the common sunflower with stalks reaching a metre in height. Flowers open in the mid- summer and last for weeks.
The Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosis) is an interesting species to have represented in your garden array. This perennial plant can grow more than eight feet tall, so like the sunflower it could be used as a backdrop plant against the fence, yard corners or a particular wall. It can grow in clusters. It has a small bright yellow flower and elongated green leaves.
In strong wind storms, the unprotected plants can come down, so a supporting cord tied to two end hooks can alleviate this potential problem.
A word of warning, since this species spreads by rhizomes, which are like underground roots, it can take over an area if the soil is rich. You need to control in the fall by removing roots you don’t wish to develop.
The good thing is you can eat these potato-like tubers. Historically, they were used by early settlers and natives as a food source as well as for medicinal purposes. My artichokes provide cover and perches for winter birds near the feeders and hardened stalks are easily removed in spring.