National Flower of Ukraine, Flower of Hope and more

By Lynette L. Walther

Sunflowers have flooded social media lately. Images of these poignant fields of sunflowers under blue skies mimic the national flag of Ukraine. Besieged and fighting for survival, Ukrainians have captured the world’s attention for their bravery in the face of unprecedented force and oppression. We hope so. We mourn them. We donate to humanitarian organizations and plant sunflowers in hopes for them and wish we could do more.

We saw the elderly woman who gave a Russian soldier a packet of sunflower seeds to put in his pocket so that when he died there sunflowers could sprout. Sunflowers have come to represent both the Ukrainian people and the world.

By far the most popular garden flower here is the sunflower. From beginners to experienced gardeners, these bold, easy-to-grow flowers are top picks. And there are so many to choose from.

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Sunflowers are native to the Americas and domestic seeds dating back to 2100 BC. have been found in Mexico, according to the National Garden Bureau. Native Americans cultivated sunflowers as a crop, and explorers eventually brought the flowers to Europe in the 1500s. Over the following centuries, sunflowers became increasingly popular on the European and Asian mainland, with Russian farmers growing more of 2 million acres in the early 19th century (most of which was used to make sunflower oil).

So easy to grow, even birds can

Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh painted a world famous series of still lifes of sunflowers, says NGB. His paintings of sunflowers are so famous that the Van Gogh Museum has partnered with sunflower breeder Sunrich to create the “Sunrich-Van Gogh’s Favorite” sunflower label.

Sunflowers follow the sun; the flower heads rotate as the sun moves across the sky. This is called heliotropism.

Sunflowers pair well with many vegetable crops, such as the “Three Sisters” combination of sunflowers, pole beans, and squash. Tall sunflowers support climbing beans which help shade and fix nitrogen in the soil for the squash. Another vegetable-sunflower combo is cucumber and sunflower. Again, cucumbers can climb up sunflower stems. I like to pair sunflowers of the Van Gogh variety which have sturdy, thick stems that stand about 5 feet tall that support full, sturdy blooms with saffron yellow petals.

The sunflower is one of the most recognizable flowers in the world and the Maximilian perennial sunflower is one of the tallest.  The sunflower symbolizes optimism, positivity, long life and happiness.

Types of sunflower

Sunflowers can be annuals (Helianthus annuus) or perennials (Helianthus maximiliani), but most modern sunflowers are annuals.

Single stem or branched sunflowers

Single stem sunflower varieties are best for high density plantings and still produce beautiful blooms on tall stems. Succession planting will be necessary for continued flowering throughout the season.

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Pollen vs Pollenless Sunflowers

Pollen-producing sunflowers are a great option for gardeners who focus on pollinator support or for those looking for a lower price. Pollen Free: Moulin Rouge, ProCut Series, Sunbuzz, Sunrich Series and Vincent Series. Pollen: Soraya (winner of the All America selections), Ring of Fire (winner of the AAS) and Valentine.

How to grow and care for sunflowers

Sunflower seeds can be direct sown or started indoors. Seeds should be sown a quarter inch to half an inch deep and kept moist. Larger, taller sunflower varieties have a large taproot to keep them rooted and do not do well when transplanted, so direct seeding these varieties is recommended. Choose a site, or container, in full sun, with average fertility and good drainage.

Reasons to Grow Sunflowers

Sunflowers are native to the Americans and were exported to other countries around 1500. Sunflower seeds traveled to space in 2012 when astronaut Don Petti carried them aboard the International Space Station.

Considering all the good qualities and ease of growing sunflowers, we hardly need a reason to grow them. In my house, these sloppy wild birds often scatter enough sunflower seeds to start a small garden. But if you feel the need to grow sunflowers this spring, here are some great reasons to give them a try.

  • To attract birds, grow your own birdseed.
  • For the table, try pollen-free sunflowers, perfect for cheerful bouquets.
  • For pollinators – garden sunflowers attract a variety of bees and other pollinators.
  • For architectural/garden interest – tall and short sunflowers are the focal points of the garden.
  • For containers – try short sunflowers and container varieties for a different mix.
  • To eat well, try roasting sunflower seeds like those from Sunzilla, Mammoth Gray Stripe, or Titan.
  • Honor and show solidarity with Ukraine and its people.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold Medal winner for writing, a five-time GardenComm Silver Medal recipient for achievement, the National Garden Bureau Exemplary Journalism Award, and the author of ” Florida Gardening on the Go”. She is a member of GardenComm, the professional organization for garden writers. Its gardens are located on the banks of the St. Johns River.

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