My son, Aidan, has built a mystique around sunflowers. Mostly it has to do with how they follow the sun — an open sunflower in the ground will start the day with the flower facing east and finish the day facing west. Aidan believes they do this to see him off to school in the morning and welcome him back in the afternoon. He also believes that, because they are so tall, they are perfect for standing guard over all the other plants in the garden. We always plant a row of sunflower seeds in the back of our mystery pumpkin bed every season to, according to Aidan, keep our pumpkins safe until they are ready to harvest for Halloween.
I also believe there is something more to sunflowers than meets the eye. Like apricots and cherries, the arrival of sunflowers en mass at our stores signals the end of the spring (and a tearful goodbye to tulips and most other bulb flowers). Sunflowers personify summer and the outdoors. They are a wonderful plant to grow, having many fascinating stages and a dizzying array of colors, bloom characteristics and practical uses. Among these is a second life as a natural bird feeder — as the bloom fades and the seeds mature, sunflowers naturally attract birds and squirrels.
Aside from their aesthetic attributes, sunflowers are a very important commercial plant. A native to North America, sunflowers owe their commercial success to Russian farmers. Grown for two primary crop types, small sunflower seeds are pressed for oil (for cooking and cosmetic uses) and larger varieties are cultivated for seed for a broad range of uses. Commercial sunflower fields are fascinating to see — possessing the same “follow the sun” characteristics as garden sunflowers do but on a much larger scale.
Sunflowers for the fresh cut market are also an extremely important regional and local crop. As the domestic season progresses and local growers come on line, sunflower supply chains get shorter and shorter. West coast commercial production is mainly in Southern California. The east coast gets much of its commercial supply from North Carolina and Michigan but when the weather gets warms enough, sunflowers can come from virtually anywhere. Varieties are diverse, depending on growing areas and desired characteristics, but one thing all sunflowers have in common is that they are big and heavy, which makes short trips to market all the more desirable for growers.
Our global sunflower expert Amanda gave me some basic care tips:
- Sunflowers prefer clean water (their fuzzy stems are easily clogged up in a vase).
- Re-trimming the stem each time you change the water will help them last longer.
- Average vase life for well-cared-for suns is about two weeks.
- Keep away from direct sunlight and excessive heat, as this will force the flowers to “drink” more heavily and lean towards the light source (which is a recipe for a broken vase).
- If the blooms are not fully “face” open, just give them a trim and let them drink up warm water (bath temp) for about one hour…they’ll wake up for sure!
- Keep water cool and clean and you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.
I have to admit, I have fed Aidan’s perception that sunflowers are somehow more “alive” than other plants — mainly because I believe it to be true. I love how seeds from the same plant can produce new sunflowers that are sometimes radically different from the parent plant. I could swear I hear them growing at times and even at their last stages of life, sunflowers have a complex beauty that is lasting. Maybe I’m a little goofy, but it does feel at times in quiet hours of the morning (east) or in the final moments of the day (west), that these tall, swaying giants are somehow watching over me and all the other plants in the garden. That’s fine by me, I can’t think of a happier guardian.
Many thanks to Amanda Rainey for contributing to this post