Add a bright spot of yellow to your fall garden

May 20, 2010

by Suzann Herricks, Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt

There are some 70 species of the sunflower genus Helianthus annuus. Sunflower blooms range in color from golden yellow to red-orange and from 2.5 inches to over 8 inches in size. The plants grow from 2 feet up to 8 feet in height depending on the variety. In addition to their beauty in the garden and as cut flowers, sunflowers are a source for edible seeds and oleic oil for cooking.
ABOVE:  This 2009 Victoria County Extension test site included several varieties of sunflowers and safflowers planted to evaluate yield for seed production and viable alternative crops.
RIGHT:  Sunflower blooms lose their petals and dry in the sun. They turn completely brown when dried out and have thousands of seeds ready for harvest.
"Sleeping with a sunflower under your pillow will permit you to know the truth of any matter."
Traditional folk widsom

I don't know if I will sleep with a sunflower under my pillow, but I do enjoy looking at them in my garden.

Even a brown-thumbed gardener can grow sunflowers with success.

Kansas has designated it as its state flower; poets have celebrated its qualities; and Vincent van Gogh's sunflower paintings are famous worldwide.

Sunflowers are not only lovely to look at, but their seeds are used as a source for food for wildlife, birds and people and are a major commercial crop harvested for their oil.

The word sunflower has been applied figuratively to people of remarkable beauty.

Van Gogh considered it a symbol of light, renewal and health. Although he painted the famous sunflower images and decorated his house and bedrooms with them, their charms must have been lost on him because he cut off a part of his own ear during a fit of depression.


The common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is the giant of the family. The botanical name is taken from the Greek words helios, for sun and anthos, for flower.

There are about 70 species of this genus although it is difficult to identify as a species because they frequently hybridize.

Both annual and perennial forms bloom from late summer to early fall. The bright golden heads don't really follow the sun once they have bloomed. They do so only while still in the bud form.

Its native habitat is limited to the Americas and its common range covers the Central Plains states where in September, they erupt in a blaze of yellow.

North Dakota grows more sunflowers than any other state and is the main producer of sunflower seeds.


The sunflower is a surprisingly utilitarian plant. For more than 3,000 years, people have had a close association with sunflowers. It was domesticated for food production by Native Americans and is a common crop in the Great Plains for food and oil production.

Lewis and Clark mentioned its usage by the plains Indians in their journals.

If you like to eat sunflower seeds, you can thank many generations of Native Americans who carefully selected the largest size seeds over hundreds of years that produced today's cultivated sunflower. They also used parts of the plant for oil, dye and thread.

Pioneers planted Maximilian sunflowers near homes to repel mosquitoes and used the blossoms in bath water to relieve arthritis pain.

The oleic oil of the sunflower is used for cooking.

Sunflower meal is a high-quality source of protein and the seeds are a good source of filler and protein. The tuberosus sunflower (Jerusalem artichoke) has an edible potato-like tuber.


If you don't want a 12-foot sunflower staring at you from your garden, there are dwarf varieties of every style or size.

One annual sunflower that is usually available in local nurseries is Tithonia. Referred to as the Mexican sunflower, it has 3-inch, red-orange blooms and grows to a height of 6 feet.

Teddy Bear gets 2-feet high and has 6-inch double blooms. Velvet Queen is the darkest of all sunflowers. It has 8- to 10-inch blooms and grows 5- to 7-feet tall. It makes a wonderful cut flower.

Heliopsis is one of the best perennials. It looks almost like a daisy and has 4- to 5-inch golden yellow blooms. After several years, the blooms will begin to be smaller, which indicates that the clumps need to be divided preferably in early spring.

The swamp sunflower is an East Texas native. It is fairly aggressive as most sunflowers are. The 2-inch yellow daisy-like flowers begin to open in September.

H. Maximiliani, the Maximilian Sunflower, is native to Texas. It reaches up to 10 feet in height. Clumps of this can also be divided in spring.

A perennial variety like Helianthus x multiflorus Flore Pleno or London Gold are bushy and fill a 2-foot square space and resemble chrysanthemums. They are a more manageable size for the home garden.

If you want to grow sunflowers for edible seed for human consumption, there are many varieties that can be purchased that have larger seeds that are easier to harvest and eat.

Whatever variety you decide to plant, you are sure to be successful, as they have few requirements other than sun.


Sunflowers tolerate cool or hot temperatures, a wide range of soil conditions, drought and wind. They are hardy in zones 3-9 and have low water and nutrient requirements and make an appropriate addition to xeriscapes.

They love heat ,so plant after the last threat of frost.

If you plant tall varieties, plant near a fence or other structure to hold stalks steady. Place them near other fall favorites, such as mums and asters.

If you want to save seeds to eat, cover the heads with a mesh-like fabric to keep critters out. Cut seed heads when they turn brown and are dry. If you allow seeds to drop into the garden, you will be overly blessed with sunflowers the following spring.

Large varieties can produce more than 1,000 seeds from one plant. Seventy percent of seeds will germinate in seven to 25 days.

Let your children plant some sunflower seeds, and watch their eyes light up when the seeds germinate, grow and bloom. You are sure to be pleased with the wide-eyed blossoms of these unique flowers

London Gold
Teddy Bear
Flore Pleno
Italian White
Velvet Queen
Autumn Beauty
Ring of Fire
Russian Giant

Food and oil production

Sunflower seeds

Oleic cooking oil

Sunflower meal - Source of protein

Sunflower seeds - Source of filler and protein
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.