Short and Sweet
If your garden is too small for giants, or if you grow in containers, you can plant dwarf sunflower varieties. Some of these dwarf hybrids resemble dahlias, or furry yellow pets, more than they do the typical sunflower. 'Baby Bear', for example, is a fuzzy lovable shorty when freshly blooming. 'Music Box' is a combination of mini-sunflowers.
The mighty midgets have just two drawbacks: The blooms (like those of tall sunflowers) face the ground once they mature, so that you find yourself looking down on the backs of the flowers. And unlike their taller brethren or other tall branching flowers, such as zinnias, the side-branching flowers often don't top the first bloom but stay at a lower height.
Single-stemmed sunflowers are the ultimate in long-stemmed cut flowers. For cutting, plant the 'Sunrich' and 'ProCut' series, suggests Keith Baldwin, Ph.D., horticulture specialist at North Carolina State University. Lynn Byczynski, of Lawrence, Kansas, author of The Flower Farmer and editor of the monthly journal Growing for Market, is captivated by the double-spiral seed pattern in the single-stemmed dwarf 'Zebulon' (named, we suspect, for Monsieur Zebulon, an animated wizard who bounces around on springs).
A 2005 study performed by Japanese scientists reported that when sunflowers were picked just as the petals were unfolding, they lasted more than a week--but less than two-- in a vase. Standouts among the 28 varieties evaluated include 'Munchkin', 'Moonlight', and 'F1 Premier' (all pollenless). For a continuous supply of cut sunflowers, plant seeds every two weeks, advises Baldwin. Consider single-stemmed sunflowers a crop, rather than a garden plant. In our test garden, they provided two weeks of color after 50 to 60 days of green.
The sunflower is one of the few crop species that originated in North America. It traveled with early settlers to Europe, then to Russia, where it was adopted and transformed. After Russian breeders nearly doubled the oil content in the seeds by selection breeding, it was brought back, newly respected, to the United States. Scientists see a bright and shiny future for our native sunflower. The plants are used to filter contaminated water and to extract lead from soil. The seed oil can be used in diesel engines, and now scientists from the University of Leeds have discovered a way to extract hydrogen from the oil, a potential means of powering a hydrogen car!