For an instant lift, make sure your garden is home to a sunflower or three. Gold, red or even green, from skyscraping stems to container-friendly options, Helianthus is a hot favourite for late summer bliss
If you’re looking for a cheery shot of summer colour, try annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), says Louise Curley.
They’re easy to grow from seed, which makes the tall, single-stemmed varieties such as ‘Russian Giant’ and ‘Kong’ firm favourites with children, but there’s a lot more to this plant than cultivating giants.
You can get dwarf sunflowers (for container growing or planting at the front of a border), mid-height types that look good mixed in among perennials, and taller varieties – ideal for the back of a border.
While classic sunflowers have a single ring of bright yellow petals around a central disc, there are a lots of different types, from semi-doubles with a few extra layers of petals to doubles with huge, frilly blooms.
It’s worth mixing up your colours, too – with options ranging from dark reds, rusty oranges and pale yellows to creamy white, either singly or in vibrant two-tone mixes.
Why type should you choose?
Too grow a giant, go for a single-stemmed variety as it will put all of its energy into producing one bloom atop a colossal stalk – but for a mass of flowers all summer long, choose from multi-stemmed, branching sunflower varieties.
Some Helianthus have been bred to be pollen-free: this is useful for cut flower arranging, as pollen has a tendency to drop once flowers are picked, but it also makes them less useful as sources of food for bees. The many layers of double flowers also make it hard for bees and butterflies to access pollen and nectar.
Remember: it’s not just gardeners that love sunflowers. In late autumn and winter, the seedheads can be a vital food source for hungry birds.
Leave the spent heads on the plant so seeds can ripen, then let the birds help themselves.If you prefer a less messy approach, once ripe, remove the seedheads from the stalks and suspend them from the branches of a tree. You can also lay them on your bird table.
Seven Sensational Sunflowers
An opulent sunflower with rays of petals in a coppery-bronze or deep, rich red, plus dark brown centres that are speckled with golden pollen. Produces multiple branches and medium-sized flower heads. HxS: 5ftx20in (1½mx50cm). Supplier: Chiltern Seeds.
Delicate and lovely, with pretty primrose yellow petals surrounding a black centre. A good choice for cut flowers (or for planting in a mixed border), thanks to its multi-branched, slender stems. HxS: 5ftx18in (1½mx45cm). Supplier: Sarah Raven Seeds.
Purple-tinged foliage, stems and flower buds combine in this striking option. A single ring of dark pink petals, fading to pale pink or cream at the tips, encircles a dark red middle. Vigorous and floriferous. HxS: 2x1ft (60x30cm). Suppliers: Crocus or Suttons Seeds.
Features unusual pom pom-like flower heads that are packed with thousands of golden yellow petals. Its short stature is ideal for containers, but the double flowers mean it’s not a good choice for bees. HxS: 20inx1ft (50x30cm). Supplier: Dobies.
A bushy plant covered in masses of creamy-white flowers throughout summer and into autumn. With slender stems and small flower heads, ‘Vanilla Ice’ is another excellent option for cutting. HxS: 4×1½ft (1.2mx45cm). Supplier: DT Brown Seeds.
‘Sun Fill Green’
A dramatic green sunflower that has been bred for the cut flower trade. The small green blooms – 3-4in (8-10cm) in diameter – are made up of green spiky sepals rather than petals, and are held on single stems. Very striking. HxS: 5ftx16in (1½mx40cm). Supplier: Nicky’s Nursery.
An excellent choice for containers. Flame-like petals in tones of rusty orange fading to golden yellow, on compact, low-growing, well-branched plants – ideal for a sunny patio. The pollen-free blooms will appear over a long period. HxS: 2x1ft (60x30cm). Supplier: Marshalls.
Seed sowing and aftercare
Slugs and snails love young plants, so start sunflowers off in 3½in (9cm) pots of multi-purpose compost rather than sowing direct. Sow two seeds per pot; water and label. If both germinate, remove the weaker one.
Harden off before planting out. Medium-to-tall varieties need staking – use stout bamboo canes or hazel beanpoles and tie in with twine.
Colour combinations to try
A medium-branching sunflower like ‘Valentine’ looks lovely with the feathery foliage of bronze fennel and the tall stems of Verbena bonariensis.
Fill a container with a dwarf sunflower such as ‘Solar Flash’, and blue and white lobelia.
Dahlias are great with sunflowers. The dark colours of ‘Velvet Queen’ look fabulous with vibrant orange dahlias (try ‘David Howard’) and the red and rusty colours of crocosmias and heleniums.
Main image: Sunflower and butterfly (Alamy)
Words: Louise Curley