Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

Last week we started to take a look at plants you can add to the garden for a little fall colour. The idea is to look specifically at flowers that we can cut and bring into the house for extended enjoyment. The plant that helped us begin our exploration of this topic was the Maximilian sunflower which is a native perennial sunflower. That was just one plant but the sunflower family is huge, diverse and always there with something to help you through those grey autumn days.

Sunflowers can be either perennial or annual. The perennial sunflowers deliver long lasting stems of cut-flowers that will easily last a week or two in the vase but if they have one short-coming it’s that their colour scheme is pretty limited. Annual sunflowers, by contrast, come in virtually every colour (and combination of colours) that you can imagine. With the perennial sunflowers you only have to plant once and you’ll end up with a stand of low maintenance and long lived plants that will provide colour to your table for years to come. The annual sunflowers need to be replanted every year. Probably the greatest issue with annual sunflowers is that the seed costs for some of the more unusual varieties can get quite high. The silver lining here is that if you are so inclined, it’s easy to save sunflower seeds, making them a one time purchase.

Perennial sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) are native North American flowers that are incredibly tough plants. The Greek Helianthus literally means “sun flower” and in the garden they do indeed look like so many little rays of sunshine sitting atop their stems. Helianthus plants are generally cold hardy to at least zone four and I’ve seen them growing as far north as zone two. Much like the Maximilian sunflowers that we examined in detail last week, the rest of the Helianthus genus are drought resistant, tolerant of a wide variety of soil types, somewhat deer resistant and exceptionally important food sources for many native birds and pollinators. An added bonus when planting Helianthus for cut flowers is that many varieties can carry ten to twenty blossoms to a stem. Every year your patch should get a little bigger resulting in even more of these multiflorous stems available to be cut and brought indoors. There are several well known named varieties available for northern gardens. Some of the most notable of these include Willowleaf sunflower, Lemon Queen sunflower, Lodden Gold sunflower, Swamp sunflower (which is one of the most tolerant of poor growing conditions while producing very impressive flowers) and Soleil d’Or sunflower. For those of you familiar with Jerusalem artichoke, it is also a native perennial sunflower. While Jerusalem artichokes (not true artichokes by the way) are generally grown for their edible tubers, they also produce strong tall stems that are loaded with butter yellow flowers seemingly just made for your vase. Match them with a few stems of late blooming purple monkshood and you have a quick and easy professional looking bouquet that will last on the table for well over a week.

There are a couple words of caution for anyone looking to add perennial sunflowers to the garden. First, they can be mildly to extremely invasive (although the term invasive should arguably not be applied to native plants). Jerusalem artichokes in particular are difficult to get rid of once they’ve been planted. Bearing this in mind, chose a planting location where their spread will be limited and where you will enjoy seeing them for many years to come. The other serious consideration is that most perennial sunflowers are quite tall and susceptible to strong damaging winds. Wind breaks are a great way to ensure your perennial sunflowers are still standing at attention in the fall when they are in full blooming glory. Sturdy stakes or fences that they can be tied to are possibly even more effective.

While we’re on the topic of perennial sunflowers, it’s worth also mentioning the perennial false sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides). Helianthoides is Greek for “like Helianthus”. False sunflowers are also commonly referred to as ox eye sunflowers. The false sunflower family is comprised of plants that are every bit as tough and useful for cut flowers as the true perennial sunflowers. Heliopsis plants are even more cold hardy than the Helianthus while being equally important wildlife plants. My favourite of them all is Summer Pink which has golden flowers atop purple stems and surrounded by crinkled pink leaves. Summer Pink is one of the most unusual foliage plants I’ve ever seen. Beyond this, any of the Heliopsis will provide beautiful and long lasting cut flowers.

Come back next week and we’ll take a close look at the ever popular annual version of sunflowers.