Monday, August 8, 2016


Let’s celebrate the arrival of sunflowers, a beautiful, tough plant that flourishes in places as diverse as suburban gardens and the banks of the LA River.

In a recent conversation, Chris Wien, a retired Cornell professor of horticulture, stated that sunflowers, including the common sunflower, Helianthus annus, “are native to North America.”  “Sunflowers originated in the central United States,” he continued, and spread to the coasts from there.”   

One of my most moving sunflower experiences was driving through Orleans County on the south shore of Lake Ontario and seeing miles and miles of fields filled with sunflowers with enormous blooms.  Sunflowers spring up in California, despite the challenging climate there.  Sunflowers o the banks of the LA River appeared in the Friends of the Los Angeles River’s State of the River: the Long Beach Fish Study.

Wild sunflowers tend to be branchy, with several blooms on several branches.  “Somewhere along the line,” Wien observed, “people cultivated them to be less branchy.”   Single stem sunflowers are increasingly common.  Wien notes “Some new sunflower hybrids developed for use as cut flowers are pollen- free;” they will not shed pollen on a table cloth or other treasured household surface.

This close up from the Community Garden shows the branchiness of sunflowers
Some of the best experiences with sunflowers happen serendipitously.  The first year my friend Seth grew sunflowers he had a sixty-foot row of perhaps 20 sunflower plants, each about 6 feet high with seed heads about 20 inches in diameter.  Basking in beginner’s luck, Seth recalled, “It being before the YouTube era, I figured I'd let the heads dry on the plants right in the field.  A few days later I checked on them.  No seeds left.  Birds got them all.”

My friend Steve grew sunflowers while living in Virginia.  He recalled that “Watching the birds snatch the big flowers' seeds and flying away like shoplifters always gave me great pleasure and a few laughs when the multitude of flight paths would cause some bumping and rumpled feathers.”

Chris mentioned that, internationally, the most frequent use of sunflowers is as a source of oil. The second most common use is people eating the seeds.  He has heard that Russians so love sunflower seeds that in any Russian cinema, the main sound is not cell phones going off but a steady noise of people cracking open and munching sunflower seeds.

Bird food is the third most common use of sunflower seeds.  Steve is living in New York again.  He has four bird feeders filled with sunflower seeds. He writes, “Probably 30 percent of the seeds hit the ground, and nearly all those get gobbled up by the resident squirrels and chipmunks.” “The remaining seeds germinate,” he writes, “in a tight-knit group of plants around the feeder stands.”  Steve and his wife have moved some of these plants into their gardens.   

Some years ago, my wife Dorothy and my mother suggested growing sunflowers in the back yard.  The hope was that a wall of sunflowers would suggest Provence or a Van Gogh painting.

The plants never grew; a mystery animal clipped them at the base of the stem.

Since then, sunflowers have appeared among my vegetables at the Town of Guilderland’s Community Garden, coming from neighboring plants.  Since then my friend Chris rototilled and sunflowers have been popping up everywhere. 

After trying so hard to get them to grow in the yard, they appear unbidden in the garden and have transplanted surprisingly well.  A five-foot giant we gave friends Richard and Nancy shook off the shock of transplanting and started blooming in just a few days.

In our yard, sunflowers attract native pollinators.  In the Community Garden honey bees swarm them; they even attract the occasional hummingbird.

In this photograph, honeybees enjoy the sunflower as a food source!
One of the most amazing traits of a sunflower that Chris described is the flower’s flexibility.  A sunflower bloom can rotate on the stem and follow the sun from morning to sundown. 

It's morning in this photograph; later in the day,
this bloom will have turned to the left

You may see sunflowers on the roadside.  I have seen them along New York roadsides and even along the arid freeways in southern California.

At first, I thought that transportation departments had included sunflowers in the seed mix.  Then, I thought that drivers spit them out the window.

I abandoned this hypothesis; it would require a driver to spit the seed across the passenger-side of the car and out the window. 

Chris’ hypothesis is that these seeds blow off of trucks moving sunflower seeds for other purposes.  We are truly blessed by a nature that produces seeds that survive New York winters or California drought!