Sunflowers break out of their jumbo yellow habits

July 05, 1998|By Nancy Brachey | Nancy Brachey,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Just look at those flowers: 10 feet tall, their petals golden yellow, the centers filled with enough seeds for a real bird feast.

Or half that size, with velvety petals. Wine red.

Or even shorter, blooms so packed with fluffy petals you might mistake then for chrysanthemums.

Sunflowers all, and you wouldn't believe how much they've changed in the past few years. Even Van Gogh might not recognize the new cousins of the golden-yellow sunflowers he painted with such drama.

Flower breeders came up with sunflowers pale as lemon sherbet, white as cream and red as Burgundy wine. Some rise to 6 feet -- short by sunflower standards -- making them just right for the back of the flower garden. Others stay dwarf, short enough for pots on your deck.

"They're versatile. They're easy, and they have style," says Sharon Kazan, trials manager for W. Atlee Burpee & Co., a national seed retailer.

"With their range of heights and colors, you could put them in the vegetable garden and they look attractive.

"And bring them into the flower bed. They can be a mainstay of the perennial border."

Look at sunflowers in two distinct ways: hardy, long-lived perennials and easy-to-grow annuals lasting one season.

Perennial sunflowers bloom usually from late summer into autumn, depending on the variety. Most bear flowers shaped like medium yellow daisies, usually 3 to 4 inches in diameter, on bushy plants 4 to 6 feet tall.

The height and later bloom make them well-suited for the back of flower beds. Let them surprise you with blooms for cutting -- just when you think the garden has slumped into dormancy between the day-lily and chrysanthemum seasons. 'Loddon Gold,' 'Flore-Pleno' and 'Maximilian' rank among the notable perennial sunflowers. Plant them in sun in good garden soil.

But it's annual sunflowers that really surprise people these days.

Because sunflowers proved such a hit as a motif in interior design during the past decade, Burpee's Kazan says, the flower breeders recognized their potential.

Just one example is 'Chianti,' a hybrid with deep-red, velvety flowers and purple stems on a well-branched plant growing 4 to 5 feet tall.

The color looks stunning, she said, among yellow, pink and white flowers, and silver foliage such as 'Powis Castle' artemesia.

The variety 'Teddy Bear' represents another shift in the look of annual sunflowers. A dwarf sunflower that grows about 2 feet tall, it packs petals so full you can hardly see the center.

Kazan's advice for people who want annual sunflowers for gardens and cut flowers is simple: "Get sunflowers that are branching, pollenless and long-blooming.

"Once the sunflower comes into bloom (bearing pollen), the bees come after it, which is great if you want seeds. But it's not great if you want the flowers to last a long time, especially in a perennial bed."

'Chianti' and 'Del Sol,' both hybrids, don't produce pollen.

Kazan says the branching effect is important because more branches mean more flowers.

Removal of spent flowers -- called deadheading -- will keep the plants in bloom longer.

Plant sunflower seeds in warm soil in full sun. Depending on the variety, you can get blooms in six to eight weeks. Sow seeds in the garden -- to succeed such early flowers as red poppies.

Prepare to protect them from wildlife, especially rabbits, with a chicken wire fence. Kazan finds wetting the leaves, then dusting with powdered, hydrated lime, will deter some wildlife from eating young growth.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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