Sunflowers are an enormously popular plant. They are synonymous with summer, and their bright open-faced flowers are guaranteed to make you smile. They are native to North America, though they have gained widespread popularity around the world since sunflower seeds were introduced to Europe in the 1500s.
Sunflowers are predominantly cultivated for food, with each flower being able to produce around 1,000 seeds. These seeds are edible and used in a variety of ways by people: in salads, smoothies, in bread, snacks, and more. The seeds can also be used to make sunflower oil, which is widely used cooking oil, much cheaper than olive oil. The seeds are also used as bird feed. For these purposes, the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is most typically used. This sunflower is probably what comes to mind when most people think of sunflowers; it is tall with a coarse and furry stem and a bright wide face.
These sunflowers grow very quickly from seed, and can often have many flower heads per stem. Their leaves bear a resemblance to weeds, and in fact, some people do consider the common sunflower to be a weed as it is so easy to grow that it will often continue to thrive even when you don’t want it to! By comparison, sunflowers are grown as decoration in private gardens usually only have one flower per stem, and there is a wide range of varieties available to choose from.
Sunflowers belong to the Helianthus genus, and this is almost a direct translation of the words ‘sun’ and ‘flower,’ with the Greek for sun flower being ‘helios,’ it is not clear why the sunflower is named as such. Some people believe it is because the flower itself bears a strong resemblance to both the color and shape of the sun, while others suggest the sunflower was named because they are heliotropes, which means that the flowers move in accordance with the movement of the sun, the flower always wanting to face up at the sun.
There are over 70 cultivars of sunflowers, which make up the entire genus. These varieties can be divided into three groups for ease: giant sunflowers, dwarf sunflowers, and colored sunflowers. You can learn more about these types of sunflowers in the sections below.
Key Points for Caring for Sunflowers
Although there are many varieties of sunflower, they tend to all have common care requirements. They are easy-to-care-for plants that need very little help to thrive, and in fact, the preparation you put into your soil and planting position will be the most important care elements of your sunflowers success, more so than anything you can do once the flowers are growing. To get the most out of your sunflowers, you can follow this care guide.
Sunflowers have long extended roots that need plenty of space to spread out, and because of this, they will do best in soil that is not too compacted and allows their roots to reach out easily. Plant your sunflower in loose soil which is not too heavy or waterlogged to meet this need.
If you are wanting your sunflower to truly thrive, you can adjust the pH of your soil. Sunflowers prefer slightly acidic soil, though they are not terribly fussy so do not worry about this too much.
Sunflowers need lots of sun, and ideally should be in a position of full sun for at least eight hours a day. If their requirement for plenty of direct sun is met, they will reward you with long-lasting blooms throughout summer and sometimes in to fall.
Sunflowers like warmth, and are heat tolerant. This means they need to grow in climates where summers are warm and long, and even very hot climates can happily grow sunflowers.
Like many flowering plants, sunflowers feed heavily and so require nutrient-dense soil with plenty of organic matter. If you are concerned that your soil doesn’t contain enough nutrients, you can use organic compost to top dress your soil, or feed your plants with a liquid fertilizer. Using liquid fertilizer over other types is important for sunflowers because it is more quickly absorbed and easy to measure.
Sunflowers are drought tolerant, and though they like to receive moderate waterings, they will respond badly to overwatering. Your first line of defense to reduce the chances of your sunflowers from being overwatered is to ensure your soil is well-draining. If the soil drains well, then excess water from rain or heavy waterings won’t present a problem, as the water will drain away. Poor-draining soil will become waterlogged easily if over watered, and the plant will suffer from root rot. Typically, plants won’t survive this.
Once you have ensured your soil is well draining, the next step to prevent waterlogged soil is to simply not overwater your plant. Supply your sunflower with a reasonable amount of water, but if you are unsure, you can err on the side of caution as this plant is drought tolerant. It would rather have too little water than have too much. There is no hard and fast rule in terms of how much or how often you should water sunflowers, as this will largely be dependent on the light, temperature, and soil type, but as a general rule, you can add more water when the top layer of soil has dried out.
Shelter and Support
Sunflowers are susceptible to damage from winds, so ideally, plant them in a sheltered spot alongside walls or fences. Tall sunflowers will need support as they reach great heights to prevent them from collapsing under the weight of their large flowers.
These types of sunflowers are quite a sight to behold. They can grow to staggering heights, with the tallest ever recorded sunflower measuring in at 30 feet 1 inch. You can typically expect these sunflowers to reach around 10 to 12 feet, while some of the tallest varieties will exceed 16 feet. Some growers of sunflowers become obsessed with wanting to produce the tallest sunflower with the largest face, and there are many fairs and events around the world where growers come together to compete with their most impressive sunflowers.
It is sunflowers selected from this group of ‘Giant Sunflowers’ that people choose to grow competitively. These sunflowers are also popularly used in home gardens to create a striking feature along walls or fences. Due to their height, they do require support in the form of canes or ties to prevent the stems from arching or collapsing under the weight of the flower heads. These types of sunflowers are also a good option to grow with children, as they are easy to sow from seed and typically grow rapidly to a great height with impressive flowers, much to the amazement of small children.
Varieties of giant sunflowers include:
These sunflowers are some of the tallest available, typically growing to between 12 and 14 feet. Their flower heads are equally impressive, spanning 16 inches across in a beautifully dazzling shade of bright yellow with a deep orange center. They can be sown easily from seed around four weeks before the last frost, or directly sown outside once all risk of frost has passed. They take between two and three weeks to germinate, making them an excellent project for children. They require full sun, with plenty of water in nutrient-dense soil.
2. American Giant Hybrid
This variety is the beast of all sunflowers. It is the most popularly used sunflower in growing competitions, as it grows to be the tallest, typically between 10 and 16 feet, though it is not uncommon for them to grow even taller than this. The stems are chunky and sturdy, specifically developed to withstand the weight of the sunflower head, which is surprisingly not the largest flower available, measuring a humble 10 inches across. The flower face is dark brown in color, with the surrounding petals being bright yellow. They germinate in just one or two weeks during spring and bloom in summer. If grown in a row, they make an ideal screen or shade, or can simply be grown to impress your friends and family. They prefer well-draining soil, full sun, and plenty of water.
3. Russian Mammoth
This giant sunflower grows between 9 and 12 feet tall, with flowers growing up to 14 inches across. Though it likes full sun, it will need to be grown in a location that is sheltered from the wind to prevent its large flowers from being caught in a storm. This sunflower is especially popular with pollinators, including bees and butterflies, as well as birds and squirrels who feast on the edible seeds, while being resistant to deer. It is a great low-maintenance option, growing well in moderately fertile well-draining soil and requiring little attention after the plant has germinated. It blooms in mid to late summer with glorious blooms; the flower petals are a deep yellow, while the face is an orange-brown.
4. Giant Sungold
You can mistaken the Helianthus annuus 'Giant Sungold' for the Teddy Bear sunflower by the first look at its flower. They both have very dense layers of petals, but in fact, the Giant Sungold has deeper fluffy golden heads. It has a much bigger size and can grow to over 6 ft in height. This is such a beautiful, low-maintenance sunflower that fit any gardens or perennial borders.
These sunflowers look like miniature versions of full-sized sunflowers and look cute in children’s gardens or in flower beds and container gardens. Their care is much the same as larger sunflowers, except for the fact that due to their smaller stature, they do not require support to stand erect. They make excellent cut flowers and tend to last a long time. Just like other types of sunflowers, there are many cultivars available with different advantages to suit any sunflower lover’s garden.
Credit to chipmunk_1
This variety of sunflower looks like a miniature version of the common sunflower, with an almost identical look to it at a fraction of the size. Growing to a height of just 14 inches, the Elf sunflower looks cute when grown in groups in containers or flower beds. It is one of the most popular dwarf varieties, ideal for children's gardens and for attracting butterflies. The flower heads grow to four inches across and look great in cut flower arrangements. Sow them around three weeks before the final frost to ensure they are flowering between mid to late summer.
6. Suntastic Yellow
This dwarf sunflower can grow to 20 inches in height and is a perfect sunflower grown in the garden, pots, containers or window boxes. Very charming with its small sizes, dark gold petals and black center, Suntastic Yellow sunflower is able to produce as many as 20 flowers each plant. It enjoys full sun, and well-drained soils and can bloom after 2 months of sowing.
Another dwarf or semi-dwarf variety sunflower type. Firecracker sunflower is a common sunflower that can grow up to 90 cm in height, and 20-30 cm in width, making it perfectly great to grow in pots or containers. When blooming, its flower has orange-golden hue tones and dark chocolate brown centers.
8. Dwarf Incredible
These impressive plants have full-sized sunflower heads on short stems. The sunflower face measures between 12 and 18 inches atop a stem measuring between one and two feet. Their compact size makes them ideal for growing in containers, and interestingly, these can also be grown indoors, but this can be much trickier than growing outside. When kept as houseplants, the seeds can be sown at any time of year, though sunflowers intended for use outside will need to be sown around three weeks before the last frost. Indoor sunflowers should be kept in continually moist but not wet soil. Pinch off new branch tips as they appear, as this will encourage more bushy growth and will also result in several flowers blooming on each stem.
9. Teddy Bear
Credit to Mike Peel
With fully double flowers at the height of just 16 to 24 inches, this is an adorable annual. Looking like a much smaller version of the ‘Golden Bear,’ the flowers of the ‘Teddy Bear’ have a fluffy appeal to them. As well as the seeds, the petals of this flower are edible and can be sprinkled on top of salads to add a shock of rich orange-yellow color, or used on top of cakes for a pretty decoration. This plant makes beautiful cut flowers in floral arrangements, as well as an ornamental grown in containers or flower beds in the garden. The flowers bloom for a good length of time, from mid-summer to early fall. Due to these many fantastic characteristics, this variety of sunflower was the recipient of the coveted Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 2015.
This dwarf variety is unusual in that it produces a mass of flowers per individual plant. The numerous striking yellow blooms appear thanks to the plants branching habit. These plants perform well in borders, as well as in containers, or in pots within the home. Heightwise, these flowers will grow to a maximum of two feet tall, making them a manageable plant for almost anyone to grow. Their flowers are medium in size, in a bright shade of yellow.
11. Little Becka
At two to three feet tall, this plant is not the most compact of the dwarf varieties, but it is considerably shorter than the giant varieties and features some of the most beautiful blooms of any sunflower. The flowers measure six inches across and have red-brown faces. The petals start out like a burnt orange color near the center of the flower, fading into a deep red, and back to orange again at the tips. This plant matures early and has a branching habit that results in numerous flowers. These stunning pollen-free flowers look fabulous contrasting with other dwarf varieties. Plant the alongside yellow dwarf sunflowers to give the best impact.
Colored sunflowers truly stand out from the crowd, with their clear sunflower style in an array of unexpected different colors. They come in various sizes and look particularly striking when growing amidst regular yellow sunflowers. For contrast, select two different colored sunflower cultivars, one in a pale color and one in a dark red.
12. Italian White
This demure-looking sunflower is a heavy pollinator. Growing to around five feet in height, this variety produces flowers with dark chocolate brown faces and creamy colored petals. The petals are more slender and less crowded than those on your typical sunflower, giving these blooms a look that is similar to a daisy. They look good planted with red sunflower varieties and make brilliant cut flowers. Sow these sunflowers from seed in early spring. They can be sown inside or planted directly outside in their final positions. Ensure they have access to full sun and well-draining soil.
13. Moulin Rouge
This popular-colored sunflower has deep red petals surrounding a dark flower face. It grows to around four feet in height, with blooms of around five inches across. It remains one of the most sought-after of the red sunflowers thanks to its branching habit and its pollen-free flowers. It also has the advantage of its intense red petals being resistant to fading caused by strong sunlight.
14. Strawberry Blonde
These sunflowers are a particularly unusual color, with the outermost edge of the petals being a soft cream that fades into a color which is somewhere between red and pink with a mild hint of orange. The subtle coloring gives a dreamy feel to these beautiful flowers and is a strong contrast to the dark chocolate brown center. These sunflowers grow to a maximum of five feet tall and have a branching habit. Plant them between one and two feet apart to allow for them to branch freely and have space to produce multiple flowers on each plant.
Credit to timothyfenn
With a variety of the earth color tones in its flower, Earthwalker is an easy-to-grow sunflower, growing up to 6-9 feet tall, and can produce many charming heads. Children love this flower in the garden for its summer color tones (a mix of oranges, reds, mahogany, and brown), incredible height, and daisy-like flowers. Earthwalker can bloom after 10-12 weeks of sowing and can last from mid-summer through the first frost period.
16. Sunrich Lime
This pollen-less sunflower grows vibrant blooms on single stems. The central disc is a lime color, which is what sets it apart from most sunflowers which have darker discs and is surrounded by lemon-yellow petals. This reliable hybrid will produce flowers every year measuring six inches across, with a plant height of six feet. It grows quickly, reaching maturity in around 60 days.
Credit to audreyjm529
This is one of the darkest sunflowers available, in a deep, highly pigmented red wine color. It has a branching habit that produces plenty of flowers on purple-colored stems. Growing to between 4 feet and 6 feet tall, this is a medium-height sunflower and looks fabulous contrasting against paler sunflowers. It is also a pollen-free sunflower, with an intense dark center.