Ann Wright: Sunny summer sunflowers |

Ann Wright: Sunny summer sunflowers

Ann Wright

Sunflowers grace many gardens in the heat of the summer and into fall. With over 70 species in the genera Helianthus, summer sunflowers are a lovely addition to gardens everywhere. Cultivated by Native American people in the southwest, sunflowers were a source of medicine, fiber and oil. European settlers sent seed back to Europe where sunflowers gained popularity in cottage gardens – and Van Gogh paintings.

In the 1960s commercial production of sunflowers as a food commodity began, and cultivars were grown to produce vegetable oil and seed. The large dinner plate type sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is the hybrid from which the harvested seed comes. With a Mediterranean climate, California is the largest producer of sunflower seed in the country.

Attractive to birds and pollinators, sunflowers grow in many sizes, in a variety of warm summer colors – and they follow the sun! Studies by UC Davis plant biologists demonstrated that sunflowers have a circadian rhythm. At dawn the flower’s seed head faces the rising sun, following the path of the sun through the day, returning to face the east again during the night. Growth hormones in the plant stem trigger this amazing phenomenon. Embedded in the genetic make-up of the plant, growth hormones set the rate of growth for the plants based on available light; the circadian clock influences the plant’s response to the direction of the light. The stem grows more on one side than the other, as the seed head faces the sun. For more information, check the web site at:

But why do they face the sun? Researchers found that flowers facing east-ward heated up more quickly in the morning, attracting five times more insect pollinators, including bees – who like warm flowers!

Sunflowers can be grown in most soils and most will tolerate some drought, but will do best with deep, regular watering to encourage root growth.

Sunflowers are easy to grow; the majority are annuals grown from seed, some volunteering in places a gardener may least expect it, thanks to passing birds. Annual sunflowers typically grow on a single stem, whereas perennials grow in clumps. Most do well in full sun, but may enjoy a bit of afternoon shade in the hottest areas. In exposed, windy areas of the garden taller varieties may need to be staked. Sunflowers can be grown in most soils and most will tolerate some drought, but will do best with deep, regular watering to encourage root growth.

There are some compact varieties that do well in containers or as border plants. The intriguing ‘Teddy Bear’ sunflower is a dwarf variety that grows two to three feet tall and has fluffy looking flowers. A common perennial, Helianthus maximiliani, or Maximilian sunflower can be found in many areas, growing along roadsides for erosion control, as well as for restoration of habitat in pastures or prairie lands. Tall ornamental grasses, salvias or Agastache are good companion plants for sunflowers.

So, consider the sunflower for late-season blooms, to add color to gardens and to attract pollinators. Then watch them face the sun!

Master Gardeners update

Due to the continued COVID-19 pandemic, and in compliance with county orders, the Master Gardeners of Nevada County have been directed to continue to limit on-site operations. Therefore, the Master Gardeners office in Grass Valley (at the Veteran’s Hall) remains closed, public events and workshops have been cancelled until further notice. Likewise, our September activities, the Tomato Tasting and Fall Plant Sale events have also been canceled.

Please check our website for updates, and know that Master Gardeners are still accessible via the website ( at the “Got Questions” link as well as on Facebook and Instagram. Live every Saturday on the radio, “Master Gardeners and Friends” is another way to stay in touch with the Master Gardeners – it’s a call-in show aired from 10 a.m. to noon on KNCO at AM-830.

And, watch for live Zoom workshops! Thus far Master Gardeners of Nevada County have presented and recorded two workshops. “Garden Makeover: Lawn to Landscape” and “Weeds: The Good- The Bad – The Ugly”. Both were presented live and recorded for later viewing. These can be found on our website – look for the link to Online Videos and Workshops. We are looking forward to the day when we can again meet in person!

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.

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