One the quintessential flowers of summer is the sunflower. The common sunflower was originally grown in the Southwest 5,000 years ago. Native Americans used the seed for food, dyes, medicine, and oil. Though the Europeans started growing sunflowers in the 1500s, it was mostly as an ornamental. It wasn’t until Peter the Great of Russia started growing it on the large scale for oil production that sunflowers started booming as a popular crop.
There are many types of sunflowers to grow in our gardens. They’re a diverse group such as the massive 15-foot tall Mammoth Russian with large heads and tons of seeds, or the diminutive 2-foot tall Teddy Bear with a fluffy yellow flowers that looks more like a chrysanthemum than a sunflower.
I like the multi-head varieties such as Soraya, Autumn Beauty, and Italian White. These grow 4- to 6-feet tall and have smaller, more numerous and colorful heads. If you’re looking for sunflower seed production, stick with the Russian varieties.
For ornamental purposes, look for the multi-headed and multi-colored varieties. Many also are pollen-less so they don’t make a mess when used as a cut flower indoors. However, pollen-less sunflowers don't provide food for the bees. For a real treat, harvest any sunflower head before it opens while it’s still in the bud stage. Steam and eat the head like a globe artichoke. It’s delicious!
Most sunflowers are annuals that grow best on well-drained fertile soil in full sun. Dwarf varieties grow well in containers, too. For a perennial version, grow small-headed varieties, such as Maximillan, which blooms in late summer and fall.