When people think about sunflowers they see those huge yellow blooms atop sturdy stems 6 feet or taller. They are a magnificent sight and reasonably easy to produce from seeds sown in mid-spring. But they are not the only sunflowers that a gardener can choose, and not even the best choice for a flower bed.
The better choices are perennial sunflowers, easy-to-grow plants that bloom from midsummer into fall, depending on the type. They are starting to show up now in sunny spots. The flowers are smaller than annual sunflowers such as Russian Giant, which can produce 10-inch blooms. The perennial sunflowers tend to be 3 inches or so in diameter, but much more profusely and gracefully borne on the plants.
While annual sunflowers require planting every spring, perennial sunflowers will be with you for years, regenerating fresh stems and leaves from roots every spring. The color choice ranges from pale to golden yellow, with centers that are yellow, gold or brown. The colors look appropriate both in summer and autumn.
The first one I want to call to your attention is the swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), which gives a long season of yellow bloom from late summer into fall, when flower beds tend to be filled with mauve, purple and ruby colors. This is one of those rare perennials that prospers in damp, even occasionally wet, soil in a sunny spot. Depending on conditions, it grows 5 to 7 feet tall, which tells you it should be in the back of a flower bed or against a tall fence or wall. It looks quite pretty against dark colors, especially red brick. The lance-shaped leaves are narrow, the stems hairy and centers purplish-brown.
A second choice, similar in appearance, is the willow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius), which starts blooming in early autumn, a bit later than the swamp sunflower. The flowers, 2 to 3 inches in diameter, are also golden yellow but with dark brown centers. The leaves are willowy and tend to droop. Plants rise to about 8 feet, so careful placement is vital. I grew this sunflower for quite a few years until encroaching shade did the plants in. A named variety called First Light is shorter, only about 4 feet, and a better choice and more useful for smaller flower beds. Interestingly, this version of the native American sunflower was bred in New Zealand.
Together, these two sunflowers, once they reach maturity in a couple of years, can create a lovely show for several months every autumn. They provide excellent cut flowers that are just enough different to be interesting, but that go together well in a vase.
Set out these plants in spring or fall – or even now if you are prepared to keep them watered through this hot summer.