Being a Kansas boy by birth, one of my favorite of all wildflowers is the sunflower. “Wildflowers?”, you may be asking yourself. Sure enough. Across the hills and plains of Kansas, at about this time of year, the wild sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) begin flowering. If you know where to look, you can find entire fields and valleys full of their brilliant yellow faces following the sun across the sky from east to west, sunrise to sunset. These are not the giant garden-variety sunflowers, but instead are a shrubby, multi-branched and profusely flowering sunflower that may have 50 or more golden yellow, 4″-5″ diameter blossoms on each plant. Many of the florists’ sunflowers are closely related–multi-stemmed, multi-flowering in a wide array of colors from creamy white through golden yellow to deepest burgundy. These are annual sunflowers, though, and what I really want to tell you about are a few of my perennial sunflower favorites!
The picture you see at the top of this blog entry is the foliage of what is, perhaps, my favorite of all of the perennial sunflowers, Helianthus salicifolius, or the willowleaf sunflower with leaves only about 1/8-inch wide and providing outstanding foliage texture in the sunny garden. It is a robust grower, reaching 5-7 feet tall and adding an additional 2 feet when in flower in late summer and early fall. Yes, it’s tall, but it’s also quite vertical and takes up a relatively small amount of space in the garden, so it’s useful even in smaller spaces that need some vertical interest. A virtual cloud of 3-inch diameter golden yellow flowers appear atop the plant in September and last for 6-8 weeks, providing a spectacular late summer and fall display. If the height worries you, you can “pinch” the growing tips in June when the plant reaches about 3 feet tall and it will flower at 5-6 feet tall instead of the normal 8 feet.
Other perennial sunflowers that I have grown and loved over the years include Helianthus angustifolius, with leaves about 1 inch wide (and often confused, though I’m not sure why, with H. salicifolius, since they look nothing alike), also growing 6′-8′ tall. This is commonly called the “swamp sunflower” and will thrive in wet locations where other plants suffer. However, it does spread by underground runners and may become quite aggressive in damp soils. Keeping it drier will help curb its desire to run and, quite frankly, I find it worth what little extra effort it takes to occasionally pare down the size of the clump. The benefits of having it in the garden easily outweigh any inconvenience, in my opinion.
A sunflower that not many people are familiar with but that I have great admiration for is Helianthus microcephalus, which literally translates to “little headed” sunflower. It is not as architectural a plant as the previously mentioned species, but the virtual cloud of small, clear yellow (not gold) flowers that appear in profusion from July through September make it worth a spot in the garden. One of the best features of this plant is its burgundy-red fall foliage color, which begins to appear in early fall while myriad yellow flowers are still clearly abundant. Slightly shorter than some, the little-headed sunflower comes in at about 5-6 feet when in bloom and should be spared excess fertilizer or water to keep it standing sturdily upright.
If you truly don’t have the room for a larger growing perennial sunflower, then search out the fabulous dwarf form of Helianthus angustifolius named ‘Low Down’. I’m not usually one who gets very excited about extremely dwarf forms of plants, but ‘Low Down’ is one of my exceptions. Topping out at only 1 foot tall, it completely obscures its own foliage with golden yellow flowers in autumn, putting on a spectacular ‘Low Down’ show!