August 24, 2017

Planting Sunshine in the Garden

Perennial helianthus

Pineo Photo - Perennial helianthus blossoms for a couple of months in late summer.

• By Janine Pineo •

It was the last Sunday of February, an overcast and drizzly kind of day.

After a few minutes tripping around the backyard flower beds and bailing water from a big cedar tub that’s home to chives and alpine strawberries (an experiment), I finally wandered to the front gardens, a dismal, brown-gray mass of depressing-looking, dead plant stuff.

Except, that is, for the sturdy shoots of crocus poking out of the bark mulch along one garden path.

Joy of joys, life in my yard in February. How far away could spring be?

Above and beyond a foot of snow more, as it turned out.

With the arrival of spring comes my fervent desire for flowers — big, dainty, bold or wispy, just give me flowers.

I probably have overdone the seed orders again this year, but who can resist when those luscious pictures of blooms brighten the page?

One of my weaknesses this year is Helianthus annuus: the sunflower.

From clothing to home decor to perfume, sunflowers are in. I prefer them in a corner of my vegetable garden, a spot they’ve graced since I started gardening on a big scale several years ago.

In that time, the selection available has expanded by leaps and bounds. Some catalogs have up to three pages of pictures and lists of different varieties.

This spring I plan to line one back corner of the garden with Giant Gray Stripe, a Russian sunflower. Offered by Pinetree Garden Seeds, this mammoth sunflower usually towers 7 to 8 feet and produces large seed heads that squirrels and birds adore — the blue jays just hang off them.

Annual sunflower

Pineo Photo - Annual sunflowers come into their own in late summer.

In front of these I’ll toss a dizzying mix of colors and sizes to soften the effect, starting with Bellezza d’Autuno, or Autumn Beauty. This variety, from Pinetree and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, ranges from cream-colored to a rich mahogany to cream blushed with burgundy. These stunners, topping out at 5 feet, make delightful bouquets with some blooms the size of daisies and some up to 8 inches across.

For more color, I’ll add Floristan from Pinetree. This one grows to nearly 4 feet, and its flowers are a deep wine-red tipped with yellow.

Italian White, an heirloom variety from Johnny’s, will provide a strong contrast with its creamy white-to-yellow flower. This variety is actually Helianthus debilis, a “cucumber-leafed” sunflower that grows to 5 feet.

A burst of color is guaranteed with Sole d’Oro, another Pinetree offering. The golden flowers on this plant are similar to chrysanthemums, and each plant produces several blooms along a single stalk.

Dwarf sunflowers are another curiosity in several seed catalogs, with Music Box from Pinetree reaching 28 inches to Big Smile from Shepherd’s Garden Seeds hitting heights of only 18 inches.

One of the new varieties I plan to try is Moonbright from Vesey’s Seeds Ltd. This lemon-yellow sunflower is a pollenless hybrid. Most sunflowers I plant make a dreadful mess if used in a bouquet, so I look forward to a little less cleaning.

From W. Atlee Burpee & Co., I’m trying Sunrise, a sunny yellow variety with chocolate-brown centers. The multibranching plant grows to 5 feet with flowers 6 inches across.

And perhaps one of the loveliest looking varieties is being offered by Seeds of Change. Gloriosa Polyheaded sunflower is a mouthful of a name, but it was the picture that hooked me and the catalog description that sunk me: Each plant is 6 to 8 feet tall, producing 10 to 40 branches with 4- to 6-inch flowers that range from straw yellow to orange, while others are yellow and orange blushed with red, similar to that of the gloriosa daisy. Stunning, indeed.

There are seemingly scores more of annual sunflowers. Some I’ve tried, but most I haven’t.

One beauty offered by Vesey’s and Shepherd’s is Velvet Queen. The wine-red flower glows with a richness that makes you want to touch it and see if it is velvet.

Shepherd’s also has Inca Jewels, a South American native that is represented in carvings adorning Incan temples, and Silverleaf sunflowers, a Japanese variety with silver-green foliage.

Vesey’s has Teddy Bear — I just love the name — a chrysanthemum-flowering type that is more orange than not.

Another orange one is Tangina from Burpee’s. This one looks like a sunflower but is truly orange.

If bigger is better, then you might want to try Paul Bunyan. This Burpee “exclusive” grows between 13 and 15 feet tall and produces large — of course — seed heads.

Seeds of Change offers several specialty varieties, including the orange Lion’s Mane, a stout, 6-foot-tall sunflower with double petals, and Tarahumara, a variety grown for centuries by the natives of Tarahumara, Mexico. This sunflower produces white-shelled, edible seeds.

But there’s more to sunflowers than just the annuals. I’m planning for the future with some perennial sunflowers that should brighten my gardenscape for years to come.

Helianthus maximilianii, or Maximilian sunflower, is a native from America’s Plains. In its first year it grows to a height of about 4 feet. But its second season will have me looking up — to 8 or 9 feet. Both Seeds of Change and Shepherd’s offer this one.

I know I’m asking for trouble, but I also plan to cultivate Helianthus tuberosus, better known as Jerusalem artichokes or sunchokes. After spending several weeks last year trying to identify this weedy but wonderful plant my grandmother gave me, I decided to grow a few for the roots, which are not only good for you, but tasty, too, so all the descriptions say. Ronniger’s Seed Potatoes offers three varieties; my choice is Red Fuseau. The tubers are a maroon red and elongated, rather than knobby as is typical of most sunchokes.

So come on, sunshine, I’m ready to dig in. I just hope there’s room for the sweet peas and zinnias and cosmos and nasturtiums and baby’s breath and poppies.

I could go on.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in March 1996.

2012 update: Many varieties come and go, but two you will always find in my garden are Giant Gray Stripe and Autumn Beauty. They are, after all these years, my tried and true.