North Coast Journal

Garden - August 1995

by Terry Kramer

Sunny side up

It wasn't until the seventh grade that I discovered the value of growing sunflowers.

Suddenly I realized that with 50 cents of babysitting money I could grow pounds of sunflower seeds to support a messy seed-eating habit that drove Mom nuts.

So, late that spring I poked "Mammoth Russian" seeds here and there in amongst Mom's snapdragons (without telling her of course), which later that autumn sprouted 10-foot-tall giants with thick stems, fat coarse leaves and gargantuan heads laden with black seed, nodding toward the sun. The snapdragons never had a chance.

Although no longer addicted to sunflower seeds, I still grow sunflowers today and have found them to be a fascinating and beautiful lot. So have others. Van Gogh immortalized them; Louis XIV, France's Sun King, made them a symbol of his reign; and 16th century English herbalist John Gerard believed sunflowers to be a contributing factor in "provoking bodily lust." The Incas worshipped them. The North American Ojibwas crushed sunflower roots to make a wound dressing. Early American settlers planted sunflowers around their dwellings, believing the flowers would ward off malaria.

Songbirds cherish the seeds. Florists use flowers in cut arrangements. Landscapers plant them to enhance natural, drought resistant gardens and scientific researchers study sunflowers as a means of natural of weed control. Today sunflower seed ties rapeseed as the world's third largest seed oil crop, trailing behind soybean and cottonseed.

Throughout history sunflowers have traveled full circle around the world. Originating in the Southwest, they were cultivated by Native Americans as far back as 3,000 B. C. When European explorers "discovered" America, they found native sons and daughters making cooking oil, flour, paint and dye using sunflowers.

By the late 1500s, sunflowers grew in gardens across France, England and Spain. Seeds spread across many lands. Highly valued for oil content, sunflowers marched boldly across Italy, Egypt, India, China and Russia.

Recognizing its value as a food source, the Russians developed the common sunflower to its fullest potential. Farmers there began breeding pest- and disease-resistant varieties that would produce fat seeds with high oil content. By the late 1800s they developed the cultivar "Mammoth Russian" that is still grown today.

Back home, early American settlers learned about sunflowers from Native Americans, using every bit of the plant to meet their needs. Seeds were roasted and eaten, ground into meal and crushed and boiled for oil. They used seed oils for soap, boiled hulls to make faux coffee and smoked leaves like tobacco.

When the Mennonites settled in Canada they reintroduced new improved sunflowers, introducing the "Mammoth Russian" to North America, which by the late 1800s became a heavy favorite with American seed companies. Since then sunflowers have become an important agricultural crop throughout the Midwest. The common sunflower is even the state flower of Kansas.

Today sunflowers have become increasingly popular in home gardens, especially as ornamental cut flowers. Hybridizers have developed many new cultivars, so there is much variety available. The tall seed-bearing sunflowers, Helianthus annus, is the familiar, large-headed single stem giant that yields valuable seeds. Multi-flowering sunflowers, such as Velvet Queen, Moonwalker and Sunrise and Sunset are cultivars of Helianthus debilis. These cultivars produce several heads on 5-foot plants and that are excellent for cutting. The more you cut, the more plants bloom.

Some sunflowers are perennial and have edible roots, such as the sunchoke, Helianthus tuberosus. Also called Jerusalem artichoke (totally a misnomer since it is neither an artichoke or in any way related to that sacred city), this sunflower produces numerous edible tubers rich in carbohydrates. Tubers are considered a most nutritious root vegetable because they store carbohydrates as insulin and sugar as levulose, a form found in fruits and honey. Amazingly pest-resistant, this sunflower can also become pesky and take over the garden, so watch out.

There are many other perennial sunflowers available that are adapted to a wide range of growing conditions. You can grow swamp sunflowers, H. angustifolius, in boggy wet areas, or the tall, multiflowering and sturdy maximilian sunflower, H. maximiliani, in hot, dry windswept areas.

While most sunflowers grow tall, usually 5 to 12 feet, depending on species, you can also find dwarf cultivars, ideal for large planters. åTeddy Bear' is an annual that grows 2 to 3 feet tall and sports bright yellow fluffy double flowers. åMusic Box' grows up to 2 feet and blooms in several autumn colors like yellow, cream, orange and mahogany.

All sunflowers are extremely easy to grow. Most can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and climates. If you are growing sunflowers for quality cut flowers, give them a deep, well-drained soil rich in organic matter to get the best blooms. Provide sunflowers with regular deep watering and they will form thick, sturdy stalks to support their heads. Protect young plants from slugs and snails.

While most of us do not have the land to grow golden fields of sunflowers, we can tuck them here and there in amongst other flowers. Put tall, mammoth-size sunflowers at the back, against a fence or wall. Shorter, multiflowering sunflowers look nice at the rear of flower borders. Many annual sunflowers tend to lose their lower leaves, revealing naked stalks that you may or may not want to view. Plant lower growing annuals, like marigolds, bedding dahlias and zinnias in front of them. Purple and blue verbena, lobelia and bright red salvia created a striking contrast with bright yellow sunflowers. It is fun to experiment.

While gardeners and landscape designers experiment with sunflower colors and textures, researchers study them. Their findings have revealed that the roots of some species of sunflower, especially H. annus and H. tuberosus, posses the ability to kill certain weeds. They secrete toxins, in a process called allelopathy, that tend to suppress the growth of certain broadleaf weeds, especially wild mustard and bindweed.

Experiments in Colorado, where bindweed threatens the state's agriculture, have demonstrated that bindweed refuses to grow where H. annuys has been planted. Unfortunately some good plants, namely beans, radishes, potatoes and even snapdragons, do not grow well where an abundance of sunflowers have been planted. Sunflowers are also allergic (called autotoxicity) to themselves. This means if you plant sunflowers in the same place as you did the year before, they may not do well. Research continues.

Meanwhile, I think researchers should take a look at herbalist Gerard's theory. The price of sunflower "Mammoth Russian" seed could skyrocket!

Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer who specializes in gardening and horticulture. She owns Jacoby Creek Nursery.


Garden Checklist For August

Groom - Keep flowering annuals and perennials blooming strong and neat in appearance by removing spent blooms. Allowing flowers to go to seed tells plants to stop blooming and growing. Marigolds, zinnias, petunias, dahlias, snapdragons and lobelia will bloom continuously until weather cools in late fall, if they are groomed regularly. Early in the month you can shear back most annuals if they are looking ragged. Simply fertilize and water them for a second flush of bloom.

Feed - Summer annuals, perennials and vegetables all need a good shot of fertilizer during the mid-summer. Applying fertilizer now will keep flowering plants healthy, vigorous, and prolong blooming until frost. You will get more from your vegetable garden if you give it a mid-summer feeding. Several organic and synthetic preparations are available. Choose those that are higher in phosphorous than nitrogen.

Water - Keep garden vegetables that are still fruiting well-watered. Thorough deep watering during the summer is crucial for good vegetable crop production. Not enough water can make lettuce and cucumbers bitter, broccoli heads small. Corn is especially vulnerable when tassels begin to show. Lack of summer water can interfere with pollination of ears, resulting in sparse kernels.

Plant Some More - There is still time to plant more vegetables. Carrots, potatoes, peas, lettuce, broccoli,` cabbage, onions, radishes, beets, celery and early-maturing bush beans can be planted now. The soil is warm and seeds germinate quickly.

Beware - Zucchini go crazy this time of year. Check plants often, or you'll be sorry.


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