Smitten with sunflowers

The sight of a field full of towering yellow sunflowers is the only advertisement necessary to send gardeners sprinting for the seed store. These days, the racks are so loaded with sunflower varieties, it's hard to decide which to plant. Some people grow sunflowers for harvesting edible seeds; others plant them solely for their beauty in the garden or the vase. Sunflowers may be single-stemmed or branched, and they flower in a range of colors including red, orange, yellow and bronze. Besides the traditional wide-faced sunflower are varieties with flowers resembling marigolds, daisies or dahlias.

Of the sunflower varieties that produce edible seeds, the timeless standard is 'Mammoth Russian', also called 'Gray Stripe', 'Mammoth' or 'Russian Giant'. It dates back to U.S. seed catalogs of the late 1880s. Known to tower to 18 feet tall with a 12-inch flower head, this single-stalked sunflower is often grown for flower competitions in addition to its culinary value. Comparably sized behemoths that also produce edible seed include 'Sunzilla', 'Skyscraper', 'Titan' and 'American Giant Hybrid'. If you want to reap edible seeds with less drama, try 'Sunspot'. This dwarf variety grows to about 2 feet tall, but still bears a respectable 10-inch head.

'Super Snack Hybrid' stays about 5 feet tall. Other sources of yummy seeds, though a little harder to find, include the heirlooms 'Tarahumara' and 'Hopi Black Dye'.

Pollenless varieties of sunflowers are perfect for bouquets—there is no yellow or orange dust to stain the fingers or soil the tabletop. The pollen-free trait is usually noted on the seed packet.

Some dwarf, ornamental sunflowers are well-suited to pots, including 'Teddy Bear' (16–24"), 'Elf' (16"), 'Music Box' (24–30") and 'Incredible' (18").

The gorgeous, multi-branched Mexican sunflowers, with blooms in either yellow or red, grow 4 to 5 feet tall. They wear soft, fuzzy foliage and blooms that resemble dahlias. The plants flower non-stop until fall and are very drought-tolerant. A newer and smaller, equally floriferous variety is 'Fiesta del Sol', which grows 28 to 30 inches tall.

For best results, sow sunflowers directly into the ground or into the container where they'll remain. Seedlings quickly develop a long taproot and resent being transplanted. Germination will be quickest with seeds planted after the soil has warmed.

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