They brighten any garden and come in every color from the traditional sunny yellow to orange, red, and even creamy white

By Jan Brick
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They appeared in abundance across Galveston Island from the east end to the far west end—roadways, abandoned yards, city lots, cemeteries, pastures, and homemakers’ gardens. They floated along on the waters and winds of Hurricane Ike; they settled and nestled into the soil awaiting the warmth of the following spring.

After that catastrophic heartbreak, they awakened, sprouted, flourished and bloomed simply for our pleasure. Did they come to lift our spirits? They certainly did!

Sunflowers are well-known as “happy flowers” and consequently they are the perfect bloom to brighten everyone’s mood. They are big, brightly colored, and attractive to birds, bees and other pollinators.

Their names can be delightful, charming and even enchanting. The Aztec Sun, the Evening Sun, Orange and Red Suns, Peach Passion, Lemon Queen and the Ring of Fire are a few of the unique names. Other uniquely named varieties include Irish Eyes, Munchkin, Teddy Bear, and the Dwarf Sunspot.

The sunflower is a native plant of North America. Originating in the prairie states of the United States across Kansas and the surrounding areas, it was cultivated by indigenous tribes thousands of years ago. It was eventually refined from its originally bushy multi-headed type to a single-stemmed style bearing one large bloom.

Each crown is made of smaller florets with the outside few called ray florets that cannot reproduce. The disc florets in the center portion, where the seeds develop, yield both female and male sex organs and each of these will produce a seed. These seeds can self-pollinate, or the pollen can be transported elsewhere by the wind or pollen-collecting insects like bees.

There are more than seventy species of sunflowers from the scientific family name of Helianthus, a word derived from the Greek words for sun and flower. Some may be tall (up to twenty or thirty feet) while others are short and often called dwarfs that grow in clusters or groups.

Thriving in sunny, semi-shaded, or dappled shade areas, gardeners may enjoy them nearly anywhere in the yard. However, sunflowers prefer six to eight hours of sun a day for peak performance and they grow best in moist well-drained soil. Those planted too close together will compete with one another for the soil nutrients and may not blossom to their full potential.

The average bloom and stem may soar to sixteen feet with the head over twelve inches in diameter. However, many varieties have been cultivated for differing heights as some gardeners prefer blooms less intimidating.

SunflowersSunflowers grown as ornamentals are appealing to anyone who has an interest in gardening especially young children, since they deliver spectacular results in most soils and abundant sun. A wide number of cultivars in varying sizes and colors are available to grow from seed.

Yellow is the most common color and seen most often but sunflowers may be also be red, orange, purple, pink or white as indicated by names: Red Sun, Strawberry Blonde, or Italian White, and Sunbelievable Brown Eyed Girl.

Farmers grow them for the seeds that may be consumed by humans, birds and farm stock, crushed to make a low-cholesterol oil for cooking, and milled for flour for breads or cakes. The seeds can be roasted, cracked, eaten whole, or mixed with other grains and nuts for a type of granola.

Native Americans were known to plant seeds on the edge of gardens as a type of “fourth sister” to their traditional combination of corn, beans, and squash. It was also thought that sunflowers could be utilized as a “healing food” to treat chest pain and as an anti-inflammatory remedy for kidney ailments.

Sunflowers have been utilized in various ways for non-food applications such as the oils and pigments used as sunscreen or the basis of a purple dye for skin, hair, or textiles. They also produce latex that can be used as an alternative crop in the manufacture of hypoallergenic rubber. Other applications involve soap and margarine rendering, as well the formulation of biodiesel fuel.

Promising research continues on probable improvements for future varieties including higher seed and oil yield, increased resistance to disease, drought tolerance, plant height, and ray and disc colors. Sunflowers are also being studied for possible use as a natural herbicide for weed control.

The sunflower continued as a common staple within North America until the early 1500s, when Spanish sailors shipped great quantities back to Europe where cultivation began in earnest throughout Europe and Russia. Several million acres of sunflowers were sown in nearly every country each year, before the 19th century.

A much larger sunflower with black seeds was developed in Russia in the late 1800s and brought to the U.S. by immigrants. These black seeds are meatier and have a higher oil content with thinner shells making them easier for birds to crack and are used primarily for feed. The familiar striped seeds are more palatable; thus, they are also more preferable for human consumption.

There are many benefits to growing sunflowers besides cut flowers and edible seeds. They entice pollinators that are drawn to the high-quality nectar like colorful birds, honey bees, and bumble bees, who then will pollinate other vegetation.

The birds will devour pests and insects determined to destroy your other crops whereas the roots can detox contaminated soil by removing heavy metals like lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, cadmium, copper, and manganese while improving your harvest when planted in your vegetable garden.

There are some downsides that need to be considered when planting sunflowers. The toxins that are released into the soil may retard the growth of some nearby plants. And unlike other plants, sunflowers do not dissolve at the end of the season and must be torn down, chopped up and removed so as not to leave the toxins to spread throughout the remaining soil, perhaps causing problems with the spring crops.

Also, squirrels love the seeds and will invade the area with their families and sunflowers can tempt aphids and whiteflies. Even with the negative aspects, their beauty, grandeur and majesty are worth the potential hassle.

By planting sunflowers, you give yourself, your neighbors, and passers-by a mood-boosting landscape panorama, bring friendly critters and pest seeking birds and bees to your garden, and support the environment.

Companion plants that benefit by being planted with sunflowers:

Basil, corn, cucumbers, impatiens, garlic and onions, lettuce, marigolds, peppers, summer squash, tomatoes,

Do not plant the following near sunflowers: Potatoes, pole beans, fennel…(should always be planted alone…away from other plants)