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September 2012

Let The Sunshine In

Leonard J. Buck Garden, Far Hills, NJ

The season may be getting late but non-stop sunflowers are reaching for the sky at the Leonard J. Buck Garden.

In Greek, helios means sun, anthos flower, put them together and you have one of the workhorses of the late summer garden: sunflowers.

The genus Helianthus comprises more than 50 species of sunflowers, all of which are native to North America. Helianthus are daisy-like flowers that come in many shades of yellow and a variety of shapes and sizes. Staring at the sun with its open face surrounded by a thick wreath of bright yellow petals, the sunflower cannot deny its common name.

Common sunflower, Helianthus annus, grows in a variety of habitats from drought-prone prairies to boggy swamps. They are durable plants widely grown for their seed, oil and beauty. Seeds are used for making cooking oil, paint, animal feed and biodiesel fuel. Their unpolished texture and long lasting blossoms work well in a meadow garden or in the back of a border. Flowering begins in late summer and goes into early fall.

H. annus had many uses for the early American natives, who ate the seeds and ground the kernels into flour. Oil extracted from the seed was used for women’s hair and for body painting during religious ceremonies. The seeds, flower petals, and pollen were used to make a yellow dye for cloths and baskets and the stem’s fibers were used for making rope. The timing of the sunflower’s bloom determined dates in their hunting calendar.

Due to their copious amounts of seed, sunflowers have been associated with fertility. It is said that women who wished to conceive should eat the seeds. A single sunflower can have up to 2,000 seeds.

Right now you can find sunflower plants at farmers markets, home improvement centers, or your local grocery store. Plant them in well-drained, ordinary garden soil in full sun.

I grew my own sunflowers from seed a few years ago and they keep reseeding themselves throughout my garden year after year. We enjoy watching the many bees and insects they bring and the many birds that feed on the seeds for their high fat content. Another appropriate common name for this garden favorite should be ‘nature’s bird feeder.’

A few perennial cousins of the common annual sunflower that bloom in Buck Garden are: Helianthus angustifolia, H. decapetalus, H. divaricatus, H. microcephalus and H. salicifolius. Their seed heads may be smaller than the common sunflower, but they still attract a variety of birds, bees and butterflies while adding vertical appeal to the landscape.

H. angustifolia, swamp sunflower likes to grow in rich, moist soil in full sun. The cultivar ‘First Light’ forms a compact clump of fuzzy, linear leaves topped with terminal spikes of 2-inch bright, yellow daisies from late August through September. Unlike the straight species that grows to 10 feet, ‘First Light’ grows 4’ x 4’. This sunflower’s display is quite stunning, with hundreds of flowers on strong stems.

H. decapetalus, known as thin-leaved sunflower or ten-petal sunflower is a coarse woodland sunflower growing 5-feet tall. The stems are pale reddish-green or purple, topped with masses of clear, yellow flowers. Each flower head is about 2–3½ inches across, consisting of 8-12 ray florets that surround numerous florets in a central disk. The 8-inch long leaves are egg-shaped and sharp-toothed. The upper leaf is dark green and rough in texture while the lower surface is light green and nearly hairless. The preference is partial sun or dappled sunlight, with moist conditions and a rich loamy soil. In Latin decapetalus means "ten petals” referring to the number of florets commonly counted on this sunflower. No pests or disease problems.

H. divaricatus, woodland sunflower, is a very common sunflower growing 2 -6 feet tall in partly shady places. It has opposite lance-shaped leaves, rough on the upper surface. This sunflower is easily identified by its sessile, or nearly sessile, opposite leaves and its broad, nearly truncate leaf bases. Woodland sunflower adapts to moist to dry conditions and soil that is loamy, sandy, or rocky. Its long, rhizomatous root system is easy to cultivate and like many other sunflowers will form dense colonies over time by these creeping rhizomes. Its nectar and pollen attract a variety of insects. No pest or diseases problems.

H. microcephalus ‘Lemon Queen’ is an upright sunflower reaching heights between 6' and 8 feet. Come late August the sturdy branching stems are covered with 2-inch soft lemon-yellow flowers that continue flowering for 6 weeks. ‘Lemon Queen’ usually does not need staking, unless there is an abundant amount of nitrogen in the soil. Pinch them back in June to keep their height lower. ‘Lemon Queen’ is tolerant of moist or dry soils.

H. salicifolius, willow leaf sunflower, is an excellent addition to the garden with its graceful willow-like foliage and profuse late summer blooms. It grows 5 -8 feet with a 4-foot spread. Its numerous 8-inch drooping, gray-green leaves are produced on smooth, hairless stems. The 2 -2.5-inch bright yellow flowers grow in clusters radiating around a purple-brown disk from September to October. This sunflower is tolerant of a range of soil conditions but prefers well-drained dry soil and full sun. Willow leaf sunflower makes great cut flowers and has no serious insect or disease problems.

From dyes and food to medicine and fuel, the sunflower has economic and ornamental value, a unique combination of beauty and utility. Their distinctive and brilliant appearance has captivated us and held our fascination for a long time.

Visit the Leonard J. Buck Garden and see this versatile, ornamental plant.

- Tricia Scibilia, interpretive gardener, Leonard J. Buck Garden, Somerset County Park Commission: www.somersetcountyparks.org
**Photos by Tricia Scibilia unless otherwise noted

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