|B. Rosie Lerner|
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Sunflowers have long been included in the typical Midwestern garden, but modern hybrids have greatly expanded the palette of choices for today's garden. Whether you want short, medium or tall; yellow, burgundy, bronze or brown; seed for the birds; or just pretty look at, there's a sunflower for you.
Gardeners will find two different types of sunflowers available from garden centers and mail-order catalogs: Those that are grown for their edible seeds, and those that are grown primarily as ornamentals. Traditional varieties were generally quite tall (5-plus feet) with bright yellow blooms. Modern cultivars now offer a range of orange, gold, lemon-yellow, bronze, amber, mahogany-red and even white. Another new development is more highly branched plants that may carry numerous smaller flower heads, rather than one large head. Some cultivars have been bred to fill the center with additional rows of ray-type flowers, giving a fuller, double-flowered appearance. Catalogs today offer sunflowers ranging in height from dwarf types (1-2 feet), intermediate (3-4 feet) or tall (5 feet and up).
Sunflowers have been gaining prominence as a cut-flower crop in the floral industry, and breeders have responded by creating new hybrids that bloom without producing pollen. These new floral cultivars solve the problem of pollen stains on fabrics and also extend the vase life of the cut flower.
Sunflowers are easy to grow in just about any type of garden soil and climate. Choose a sunny location for best flowering. Although the sunflower is generally considered to be a warm-season crop, most will tolerate a light frost.
To harvest sunflower seeds for eating or for feeding the birds, cut the head when at least two-thirds of the seeds are mature--the outer shell of the seed will be hardened, and the back of the head will be brown and dry. You may need to protect your harvest from the birds by covering the maturing head with cheesecloth, netting or a paper bag. Cut the head from the plant, leaving 1-2 feet of stem attached. Hang the heads in a paper or cloth bag to catch the falling seeds, and place in a warm, well-ventilated area for a few weeks to cure.
Some of the newer cultivars of sunflower include:
"Cappuccino" flower heads reach about 6 inches in diameter, with rustic orange-brown ray flowers surrounding the dark brown centers. Plants reach 6-7 feet. (Burpee)
"Cyclops" just might help you win the giant sunflower contest, with huge, 14-inch bright yellow blooms atop 15-foot stalks. (Burpee)
"Double Dandy" is a dwarf plant, reaching only 1 1/2-3 feet with 4-5 inch double, red, ruffled blooms. (Burpee)
"Ruby Moon," also bred for cut flowers, is a blend of various shades of red blooms from 5-10 inches on plants reaching up to 6 feet. (Jung)
"Starburst Lemon Aura" is the first double-flowered, lemon-yellow sunflower with green centers. Blooms are up to 8 inches across on plants reaching just 4 feet. (Jung)
"Stella Gold" is unique in having thin, strap-like petals that curve and twist, lending a feathery appearance. "Stella Gold" reaches up to 6 feet, with huge, bright yellow ray flowers surrounding the center brown-disk flowers. (Park)
"Sunforest Mix" lives up to its name as a blend of three tall varieties, reaching 10-15 feet with blooms that are 1 foot in diameter! It has bright yellow blooms with brown centers. (Burpee)
"Sunny" is a new cut-flower type sunflower bearing 5-6 inch, yellow-orange heads with a large brown center. Plants reach 5-6 feet. (Johnnys)