Sunflower Revolution

New sizes, colors, and varieties for every garden

By Pam Ruch

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Everyone can enjoy sunflower power. Take a look at these variety of options and you'll see that you can plant sunflowers that are short and shorter still; puffy and fluffy; tawny red or creamy white; and even varieties that are ideal for gardeners with allergies. This is one flower that has a place in every organic garden.

Big Winners
I've planted quite a few sunflowers in the Organic Gardening Test Garden over the past two years. And I'm convinced that the absolute best garden sunflowers are the 4- to 6-foot branching types. Among our favorites are 'Sonja', a perky orange-gold with strong stems and clean prickly foliage, and 'Soraya', slightly larger and later-blooming. One of the first to bloom is 4-foot-tall 'Prado Red', followed by sturdy, long-lasting yellow 'Ikarus'. 'Sunrise' is a big favorite with pollinators (that is, bees, butterflies, and other insects), and 'Ring of Fire' impressed us with its great numbers of comparatively small red-ringed flowers. Clear yellow 'Valentine' is a reliable, and beautiful, 5-footer.

If you favor red, 'Chianti' is "a deeper red than any of the others," states Margaret Thorson of Thousand Flower Farm, in Waldron Island, Washington. It's also pollen-free. Thorson also favors 'Italian White', for its elegant creamy-petaled, dark-centered blooms, and 'Indian Blanket', a festive bicolor. "But sometimes," she notes, "the very nicest ones are those that come up from seed the birds missed the year before."

Tom Heaton, Ph.D., a California plant geneticist, began breeding sunflowers decades ago with the goal of making the stems strong enough so they do not topple in late-summer storms. Heaton's 'American Giant' is a single-stemmed Goliath with huge leaves, a tall beauty of a brute that remained upright through most of last summer in our OG test plot. 'Kong' is the branched version.

For gardeners who can't settle for a single variety, 'Autumn Beauty' blends old-fashioned, branching beauties of all colors in each seed packet. 'Giant Sunflower Mix' is a mix of sky-high types.

Pretty and Pollenless
What has brought cut-flower status to sunflowers is the sterility trait discovered decades ago and used in the breeding of oilseed. It seems that certain sunflowers are naturally pollenless, or male-sterile; that is, unlike most plants, which have both male and female fertile flowers, they possess only female characteristics. Breeders create hybrids by fertilizing a male-sterile plant with pollen from a different variety that produces pollen. The lack of pollen not only makes the breeding of hybrids easily doable; it also makes a flower better suited for cutting. Pollenless sunflowers don't shed yellow dust, they are less apt to be allergenic, and they last longer in a vase. When the flowers are fertilized, Heaton explains, "they develop into seeds from the outside inward. That means the outside flowers are drawing resources from the plant and the petals as they fill in and become seeds." He points out that pollenless flowers have abundant nectar and so are still attractive to bees and butterflies. They will make seeds just like any other sunflower if there are others with pollen nearby, though the seeds will almost certainly yield flowers with different traits, if planted.

Hybridizing has yielded such pollenless varieties as 'Lemon Aura', a lemon-yellow branching beauty. 'Go Bananas' is a mix of yellows. 'Infrared Mix' is an assortment of reds.

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