I used to work in a plant nursery and I frequently got asked what is an easy flower to grow. A flower that kids can grow. A flower that will attract birds. A flower that will bloom in late summer when everything else is starting to die back. The answer to all those questions is the Sunflower.
The sunflower or Heliarthus is a true American flower. It is the state flower of Kansas. Indians were raising it for the seeds long before the Conquistadors came to America. Indians and early pioneers used the petals to make a yellow dye for clothing. The Incas revered the sunflower as a symbol of the sun. Not only are the seeds eaten by people, animals, and birds, the oil fro the seeds is used in some salad dressings, margarine and soaps.
The most commonly grown is the Mammoth Gray Stripe that can reach ten feet tall, and be eight to twelve inches across the flower head One flower can have up to 1,000 seeds or more. (I didn't count them. I'm just quoting from a book on annual flowers.)
Sunflowers are usually grown from seeds as they don't transplant well as seedlings. On checking the seed racks in several stores, I was surprised to see how many different finds of sunflowers there were. I found a whopping twenty different varieties, in all sizes and heights, plus more are mentioned in books. Color ranged from the almost white of Vanilla Ice, through every shade of yellow
like Lemon Queen, Cutting Gold and Sunspot. There were shades of red and rust browns, too. I liked the ones called Autumn Beauty, Sunset, and Chianti. The orange of Tethona or Mexican Sunflower is an eye-catcher in any garden even though the flowers are small compared to the big Mammoth sunflowers.
There are, also, wild sunflowers in many areas of the United States that are considered by many people to be weeds. I let a few of these weeds grow in my yard as they take no care and the goldfinches love the seeds as they are small enough for these small yellow birds to eat. The seeds from the Mammoth sunflowers are too big for some small birds to eat. The photo at the top of this post is of a wild sunflower.
It is best to plant them in the spring after the last frost. I usually plant mine toward the mid or late April, but have planted seeds around the end of June and had them bloom in the fall here where I live in New Mexico. Several plantings will give a more continuous blooming season. Although they can be grown in our native dirt, the addition of some well composted soil will help. But not to rich or to much fertilizer or you'll have big leaves and small flowers.
While planting add some blue morning glory seeds with the big sunflowers. The morning glories will climb up the sunflower big thick sunflower stalks and make for pretty blue and yellow flowers together. With the smaller verities of sunflowers, like Teddy Bear, drop in some marigold or nasturtium seeds for a great contrast.
Keep the seedbed moist until the seeds are several inches tall but sunflowers are not as fussy about water as many flowers and may be more forgiving about an occasional missed watering.
Do keep a lookout for some of the birds that will dig up the seeds for food. Cover the seedbed with a close meshed net if the birds cause to much trouble.
Don't be surprised to find your sunflowers attracting lots of bees. They are especially popular with the bumble bees. I've spent many an enjoyable time watching and photographing bumble bees on a newly opened sunflower. Don't be afraid of the bees. As long as you don't move to quickly or grab hold of one they won't hurt you. I've never been stung by a bee in all my years of gardening. (Yes, I have been stung by wasps. That is a whole different critter.)
I grow sunflowers for the birds, as well as the bees and my own enjoyment. It's fun to watch birds hanging onto a swaying sunflower head and eating the seeds. If a sunflower head is to heavy and bends over to much, I'll cut it and lay it on the ground so it's easier for the birds to get to the seeds. Of course squirrels like the seeds, too.
As you watch your sunflowers grow and flower don't forget to cut a few for flower arrangements in the house. A single flower by its self or in a group can be stunning. Or try a couple with several other kinds of cut flowers.
So when buying your seeds this year add a package of sunflower seed. Try a different variety, or two, or three, or four........