As summer in the Pacific Northwest comes to a close, the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) stands out as a classic garden favorite deserving consideration. These commonly large, tall yellow flowers are a boon to wildlife, provide late summer height and interest in the garden, and have shared an interesting relationship with people wherever we have encountered them.
While there are many individual species and varieties available on the market today, wild populations can be found across North America, and most boast popularity with insect pollinators and other wildlife, including birds (1, 3). In the field, Aaron is using the wild-type and, while you certainly don’t have to do the same, varieties marked as “pollenless” or double-petaled should be avoided when planting for wildlife (3). Sunflowers seeds are well-known for their attractiveness to birds, but the flowers also provide forage to a diverse suite of insects, including bees, wasps, butterflies, and even beetles (2, 3). Four genera of native bee species (Diadasia, Eucera, Melissodes, and Svastra) host members that are sunflower specialists, and the giant leafcutter bee (Megachile pugnata) has even been studied as a managed pollinator for agricultural production of the crop (3).
Originally domesticated in eastern North America, the sunflower is the only native seed oil plant (1). Its use among North America’s indigenous peoples is well-documented and varied, having been used for everything from food to dye to medicine (2). The sunflower was introduced to Europe in the 16th century, where it first found its place in gardens, but it wasn’t until the 1800s in Russia that our modern ideas of giant, towering sunflowers came to be (1). This is because early American colonists did not cultivate sunflowers, and the seeds were reintroduced from Russia to the United States in 1893 (2). The Russians bred sunflowers that could produce up to 1000 seeds each for oil production, since the Russian Orthodox Church had forbidden the use of other cooking oils during the Lenten season (1). Therefore, in comparison with many common varieties available, and despite 3,000 years of domestication by indigenous peoples in North America, the wild-type appears quite diminutive (2).
No matter the variety, gardeners should be aware that sunflowers are annual flowers that will need replanting every spring (although allowing squirrels to do the planting could be a fun experiment). They prefer well-draining soil and can reach rather impressive heights depending on the exact species and type. Additionally, the stems can become woody and may require some work removing at the end of the season.
- Simpson, B. B., & Connor, M. (2014). Plants in Our World: Economic Botany (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
- Stevens, M. (2006, June 7). Plant Guide: Annual Sunflower [PDF]. Davis: USDA NRCS National Plant Data Center.
- The Xerxes Society. (2011). Attracting Native Pollinators. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.