A lovely warm September day and the sunflowers in the Cutting Garden at Petersham Nurseries were glowing as I left for the day. Towering above the not insubstantial dahlias, cosmos, lavatera, zinnia, verbena bonariensis, remnants of sweet peas and so much more, there are several varieties planted – I picked out two here, a tawny marmalade creation and something more traditional, in a golden yellow.
How to grow: sunflowers
Best sunflower varieties for pots and containers
Turns out, sunflowers have always provoked strong feelings. The sunflower is native to the Americas, where the Incas worshipped its image as a symbol of the sun god. At the beginning of the 16th century when Francisco Pizarro was first rummaging around in Mexico, Europeans discovered many gold figures of sunflowers, including in temples in the Andes, and American Indian Indians placed bowls of seeds on the graves of the dead.
Seeing this giant, oil-producing crop as the sun’s representative on Earth isn’t entirely loopy. Most flowers exhibit “heliotropism” – a propensity to turn towards or follow the sun. At sunrise their faces turn towards the east and over the course of the day they follow it westward. Some Europeans have incorporated this into their common name for the flower – in Italian it is girasole, in Spanish girasol and in French, tournesol, all of which mean “turn [to the] sun” (the English name seems rather weak – surely we could have done better – “sun-follower” for example?)
Another reason sunflowers inspire excitement is because they can grow very, very tall. ‘Russian Giant’ can grow to 10ft, perfect if you are planning to enter a Tallest Sunflower Competition. A colleague at work – who has been staring at his stunted sunflower in frustration – may well have bought a ‘Big Smile’: a midget that won’t grow above 1ft.
For those in the anti-sunflower camp – such as my stylish friend Alice, who thinks that yellow is a common colour that should be limited to spring – a type worth considering is ‘Pastiche’ which comes in mixed shades of buff, red and burned orange. Piers, on the other hand, is more inflexible: with their “giant pads and big ridiculous faces” he doesn’t see the point of planting them unless you are a farmer or under six. In Piers’ view, sunflowers should stick to where they belong – in big spaces in the Americas where they can be grown in crops against the terracotta earth.
But people like Piers and Alice – or at least their children – may well have to reconcile themselves. According to scientists, by 2080 London could regularly experience temperatures of 105F (41C), hot enough to cultivate crops of sunflowers.
Having watched my new little sunflower sunbathe on my terrace (no doubt dreaming of Mexico), I am developing strong feelings after all: bring on the Marmite, but remember to spread lightly… like poodles or Jeremy Clarkson, a little goes a long way.
- Sunflowers belong to the helianthus genus, which has 67 species including the Jerusalem artichoke. Most of us are familiar with the huge-headed annuals. Perennial sunflowers have dainty flowers, but can be invasive and should be avoided in small spaces.
- For annuals, sow the flower seeds outdoors about ½in deep, after the last frost has passed (now is a good time). They will need six hours of direct sunlight, and thrive in most soils.
- Most varieties will work in pots, but leave plenty of root space. Dwarf varieties are happy in smaller pots. All pots need drainage holes.
- Annual sunflowers will bloom from midsummer into autumn – the dead flower heads containing seeds can then be left in winter as a bird feeder.
The pictures are my own!