Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Here Comes the Sun.... Flower!

Perhaps even…. The Greatest Flower?

How is the humble Sunflower much like The Beatles?
Well, and bear with me on this one. Imagine you asked a hundred people in the street to ‘name the biggest , best, most popular pop group of all time’… I reckon The Beatles would form a majority answer.

Now, asking those same people to ‘name the biggest, most popular flower’ and I’m pretty sure the noble sunflower would rank highly in their responses. Therefore, and somewhat like The Beatles, the sunflower suffers from that strange and similar dynamic… You know, the one that goes something like this. Because of their brilliance and majesty, reliability and all-round loveliness, they often get a little overlooked, in favour of whatever is new and current.
George - the Dark Horse - was always my favourite!

By now, regular readers of my blog will know that I LOVE yellow daisies. Again, a rather camp-sounding admission, but who cares!? For me, yellow flowers brilliantly brighten up most borders.  I have found the incredible range of clump-forming yellow herbaceous perennials – mainly from the prairies of North America – to be very reliable, clumping up and behaving themselves nicely year after year, working as great companions to other plants within naturalistic planting schemes.

Lovely, lovely Heleniums

Of course, the Sunflower (and here I recognise I am talking of the annual sunflower and not the perennials within the group) are simply amazing flowers, and although incorporating them into many of today’s borders can prove something of a challenge, I think it’s a challenge well worth the effort.   

The Latin name (Helianthus) derives from Greek roots: helios, the Greek word for sun, and anthos meaning flower - hence, Sunflower.  Of course, another (and perhaps not-so coincidental?) linguistic association in the name is the sharing of the ‘helios’ root with other plants that utilise heliotropism: a habit by which plants follow the sun’s movement throughout the day, following its path across the sky with their stems and flowers.


Now, I’m no myth buster – especially one as warm and cosy as that would have us believe that sunflowers raise their yellow heads to the sun in the morning and continue to bask within its glow, staring at it all day as it slowly moves across the sky.... a bit like Mrs O on a day off! But hey, I think we all know by now that Santa didn’t bring us that Ninja Turtle Onesie last Xmas, now did he? Yes, it’s the same with Sunflowers I’m afraid.

In fact, it was our very own botanist John Gerald who first busted this myth over 400 years ago!

Unfortunately, it would appear that, although there is indeed some heliotropic action going on, it is at a much earlier stage of the flower’s development. It is only the developing flower bud that will track the sun’s movements. But gradually, as bud breaks into flower, it tends to fix itself in one direction (generally East) and stay there for the remainder of its life. So, the next time you see a field full of sunflowers, all facing the same direction, don’t simply assume they’re all facing the sun. Chances are - no matter what the time of the day – they’ll probably be facing East!

Sorry… don’t shoot the messenger! I don’t make the rules up! Do we murder  mystery and myth each time we dissect and discover? Probablement, as they say in France!
Sunflowers - all facing East... away from the sun!
 Well, I for one like to use sunflowers in borders whenever and wherever I can. If I can let their flower heads rise and display above other plants, then I will do so. I try NOT to stake them if I can help it – EVER! With practice and experimentation I have discovered that sunflowers (like so many plants) will – in the absence of any such support – grow strong enough on their own. Remember, those sunflowers you see in the fields are not staked! And, like most plants we often rush to stake, a lack of any such support often makes for much stronger, sturdier specimens. There's a very fine line between giving enough support to encourage and enable growth... and that of producing plants (trees mainly) too weak to ever manage without it. 

Another thing I like to do with my sunflowers is to cut the stems off at a height I desire: usually around 4 or 5ft;  maybe a foot or two over the average picket fence. This way, they branch off, giving me many smaller flowers; a cluster of panicle-like flowers. Great if you want smaller, sturdier yellow daisies in your borders.

So, if you do get the chance to sow 'n grow these easiest of seeds this year, please do so. Wouldn't a world filled with more sunflowers be a brighter, better place? You betcha-bibby it would...!!!


Finally, an organisation well worth checking out is the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association. A long-established charity who have been working to beautify London's green spaces and neglected sites since the late 1800's.

Eden Community Garden
Eden Community Garden, Borough of Lambeth

Working together with an incredibly diverse range of groups and social enterprises, m.p.g.a provide funding and horticultural expertise to so many.

One of their projects is their Bulbs for London campaign. In December 2013 they sent out free bulbs to over 100 groups and organisations to almost every borough in London. In 2012 the same campaign benefitted over 200 London sites.  

Regarding the distribution of free plants, I recently asked the organisation 'why bulbs?' But of course the answer (silly question!) was kind of obvious really. Bulbs are great! They ask for no real skill when planting. Once planted, they're virtually maintenance free.... and of course, they are easy to ship!

Bulbs,... those 'organs of perennation' are little time capsules, fuelled with enough energy to almost guarantee success, and like sunflower seeds, they are often the novice's first introduction to the wonderful world of gardening.

Do have a look at their website:


That's it again for now. Spring is here.... enjoy the garden!

le Jardinier 

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