Much more than a sunny face

THE sunflower the world loves to grow is high-rise Helianthus annuus, but there are many more, 50 species in fact, all native to the Americas. They have been hybridised to produce a wide variety of colours and growth habits, but there are still basically just two kinds to grow for pure pleasure: single-stemmed and branching.

The single-stemmed varieties are the ones that are really tall and produce really huge flowers. The record stands at more than seven and a half metres, which is probably going too far, unless you live in a double-storey house. You want to be able to see the flower after all, and without binoculars. The average single-stemmer, though, will not grow much above two metres and is also good for screening and growing other things up its stem, such as runner beans.

The branching ones can also grow pretty tall but have a softer appearance and are great in the home garden for cutting, because the side flowers are quite large and can be picked, while still leaving you with plenty of flowers on the plant.

There are lots of different colours as well as yellow: glowing russet and copper shades, pale lemon, and dark and light centres. A mixed packet is a good idea as it will be full of lovely surprises.

Check packets carefully for plant height when you buy seed. Breeders have produced a lot of dwarf varieties of which it’s quite hard to see the point. But they’re pleasant enough in pots and at the base of taller single-stemmed sunflowers. Kirchhoff’s have a range of heights from dwarf to the two-metre-tall “Sunny”; also look out for the lovely “Tall Red”. Starke Ayres offer the fat, fluffy “Teddy Bear”, a wonderful showy old variety immortalised by Van Gogh. And a good, if not very tall mix, “Music Box”.

HOW TO GROW SUNFLOWERS

1. Sunflowers are best sown straight into the ground where they are going to flower. Choose a sunny spot and remove all weeds with a trowel or hand fork.

2. If the soil looks hard and heavy or powdery, add a bag of compost. Fork lightly in and rake the soil to a fine crumbly texture.

3. Make some drills 12mm deep. Leave a 10cm space between each hole.

4. Place the seeds in carefully and cover them up with soil. Firm down gently and water with a gentle spray.

5. As the seedlings grow, thin them out to about 45cm apart, leaving the strongest, tallest plants.

6. Slugs, snails and cutworms like to eat seedlings. Protect them with plastic bottles – simply cut the top off and place it over the seedling – without the cap.

7. As your sunflower begins to grow taller, you may need to support the stem. Place a stick or bamboo cane near the stem and tie them together loosely with string.

8. Water them regularly and watch them grow higher and higher …

THE HIGH-RISE BIRD FEEDER

Birds and insects love sunflowers; even before the seeds are ripe, canaries, weavers and other seedeaters (depending on your region) will arrive and begin to nibble away.

Birds in captivity must be fed the dry seeds only in moderation, however, as it is too rich for a sedentary lifestyle. Parrots also like to eat the stems.

THE REALLY USEFUL SHOWSunflowers have been cultivated for over 5000 years and have been used as staple food by indigenous North Americans since time immemorial. They ground up the seeds to make meal for all kinds of nourishing cakes and porridges, and cooked the flowerbuds as vegetables, rather like artichokes.

They also used the petals and seeds to produce yellow, red and purple dyes, wove the fibres into baskets and used the plants’ healing properties to treat wounds and a wide range of afflictions, from malaria to snake bite.

Seeds arrived in Europe in 1510 and the Russians were the first northerners to begin planting for oil.

Centuries later, Josef Stalin set up a research programme to improve the plant, which boosted oil yields by 50%.

Today, sunflower oil is among the four most popular in the world.

The stems are one of the lightest of all naturally occurring substances and were once used as the key flotation material in life jackets. But there’s more: sunflowers are able to absorb radioactive ions and heavy metals in soil.

They have been planted on a massive scale at both Chernobyl and Fukushima to help cleanse contaminated soil and are also being used around old factories and on toxic urban wasteland.

SPREADING SUNSHINE Sunflowers are the perfect battle flag for the guerilla gardener and are also the first thing many community garden projects plant along their fences.

An easy way to do this is to buy a bag of mixed birdseed and trickle a few of the seeds wherever you see a likely spot; any sheltered crack that gets a good bit of sun and where they will catch a bit of rainwater or runoff. © Home Weekly

TO DO IN APRIL

Plant spring bulbs.

Sow indigenous

spring annuals.

Take semi hardwood and hardwood cuttings

of trees and shrubs.

This month is

a good time to move

trees and shrubs.

Sow broad beans,

Swiss chard and winter loose-leaf lettuces.

Prune summer- flowering shrubs and climbers.

Look out for late colour at your local nursery: autumn leaves, berries and late-blooming

indigenous shrubs.

Stop feeding and cut down on water for plants such as roses that are going into dormancy.

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