Lifestyle Outdoors

The Observant Gardener: Sunflower Delight

Mammoth Greystripe Sunflower. Photo by Judith Canty Graves

“I find comfort in contemplating the sunflowers.” ~ Vincent van Gogh

By Judith Canty Graves

The sunflower is one of my favorite flowers. Known as Helianthus, this name is derived from the Greek word helios, meaning sun, and anthos, meaning flower. Every year I grow a variety of sunflowers. They are fascinating plants with their cheerful faces and many sizes and colors that delight people all over the world.

I enjoy watching the sunflowers grow and mature, reaching for the sky. As they create buds, they produce spiky, green leaves called bracts that appear on the edge of the flower head. Slowly, the petals of the flower open in the warm sun. Once the petals are open, they cover the bracts from the front. This is when the flower show begins, and it can last through August and into September.

The story you learned as a child, that sunflowers follow the sun all day, is true. But this is true just for the young plants with buds and leaves. Once the plant blooms, the flower will only face east. Because young sunflowers follow the sun, many cultures see them as symbolic of loyalty, faith and spirituality. Also, many people find their tall, upright stance inspirational.

A few years ago, I decided to collect seeds from a variety of sunflowers in order to experiment with different heights, colors and sizes of blooms. Look at any garden catalog and you will get a sense of the great variety that is available. There are many choices, from compact, smaller sunflowers to ones that grow more than ten feet tall. Before you buy, be sure to read the seed packet carefully to understand how high a particular sunflower can grow. Buying organic seeds with no chemicals will help protect pollinators.

I like to grow different sizes of sunflowers, especially the tall varieties. The dilemma is choosing which ones to plant and where to plant them so they won’t cast shade on other plants that need sun. As I discovered last summer, some sunflowers are extremely tall. Last year, I measured my Heirloom Mammoth Greystripe sunflower after I took it down at the end of the growing season. It was 12 feet tall! Another impressive sunflower is the Heirloom Titan, which also grew to a height of 12 feet in my garden. With such tall plants, at some point I have to stake them for extra support.
A sunflower that was new for me last summer was the Shock-O-Lat, named because of its chocolate-colored petals with a striking thin, yellow ring around a dark center. I loved this unusual looking sunflower. It grew six feet tall and produced abundant blooms for weeks.

In recent years, I have become aware of the pollinators that are attracted to sunflowers. Birds, bees and butterflies like the warm, flat surface of the flowers as well as their vivid colors. Sunflowers are important plants for the environment, offering food for insects and birds. All you need is an area of full sun and a little care to enjoy these stunning summer plants.

Judith Canty Graves is a home gardener with a background in photojournalism. She lives in Asheville. To see more of her garden photography, visit

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