Article and photos by Donna Iverson
The middle of winter doesn't seem like the best time of year to be writing about sunflowers. But it is the time of year to be buying seeds. And that includes sunflower seeds. As each new seed catalog arrives, I enjoy looking for new seed varieties, paying special notice of seeds that are featured and popular, and searching the pages for native heirlooms. More and more, the native plants draw my interest.
So when I turned to the sunflower pages of the latest seed catalog, I skipped over the giant sunflowers, the dwarf sunflowers which you can grow in a patio container, and zeroed in on the wild native sunflower: Helianthus annuus. It is native to the central plains, which includes western lower Michigan.
Like most plants, almost all varieties of sunflowers have been hybridized over the last decades. In effect, they have been genetically modified to increase their size, make them more colorful, resistant to insects and diseases, and more visually attractive to growers.
While many consider these gains, we have lost a lot. For instance, many bees and butterflies, which have become endangered, depend on native plants for food. Hybrids require more water and fertilizer and we have become dependent on large scale farms to produce these seeds.
Unlike its hybridized cousins, the native sunflower is open-pollinated which means you can collect the seeds and replant them next year, and the flowers will reproduce true to their original form. You can go to seed exchanges and trade seeds with your friends and neighbors. Even local libraries are now sponsoring seed exchanges. Not so with hybridized seeds. You need to buy them every year from the seed catalog people. Although some seed farms are starting to offer native, open pollinated seeds.
Admittedly, the native wild sunflower is smaller, growing from 2-6 feet if planted in well-drained soil in a sunny location. Instead of one giant sunflower at the top of the stalk, it is branched, with hairy stems, producing bold yellow flowers that measure a smaller 2-3 inches across. It's flower heads will rotate during the day to face the sun, ending in an easterly direction at dusk.
Wild sunflowers also have an intoxicating smell that is not to be missed, according to Alan Branhagen, author of Native Plants of the Midwest. Check it out come summer.
Like many trees and plants, sunflowers have a downside. They contain allelopathic chemicals which leach into the soil and deter the growth of nearby plants, veggies included especially beans and tomatoes. It's the same chemical that is produced by some trees, like the Walnut. And it is why flowers won't grow around a tree base.
I have decided that my wild sunflower seeds will be planted along the periphery of the garden, beside a fence, instead of going into the garden beds next to the veggies and herbs. There, I will still be able to enjoy their cheerful showy presence as will the birds and animals that crave their seeds.
Garden tip: consider a winter walk and pause to appreciate the beauty of plants displaying their snowy coats.