Sunflowers are now available in a wide range of colors and sizes—from little ones that get no more than 1-foot tall to 12-foot giants.

If I could plant just one seed this spring (!) I think it would be a sunflower seed. Sunflowers deliver a whole lotta flower power in one summer. They require almost no attention at all, are fun to watch grow, and have an irresistibly happy personality.

A sunflower is also a one-stop backyard habitat station. All summer long, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects of every kind are drawn to their pollen-rich centers. Bees pack their little leg pouches with yellow pollen until they can barely fly. Then, as fall approaches and seeds form, your garden will be filled with the happy munching of goldfinches, chickadees and sparrows.

Sunflowers belong to the genus helianthus, which is a North American native plant. There are dozens of helianthus species that have acclimatized to all kinds of growing conditions, from swamps and woodland edges to prairies and arid canyons. Fortunately for gardeners, plant breeders have had lots of fun playing with helianthus and the result is a fabulous array of growth habits and flower forms to choose from. The 2008 Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog lists 42 varieties!

Every garden has room for at least one sunflower. There are 12-foot giants to amaze the kids, such as the old favorite Mammoth Russian and Kong, both available from Stokes Seeds, and Sunzilla from Renee’s Garden. There are kid-size varieties, such as Music Box, and Big Smile and Teddy Bear that get no more than about 3 feet high. No time or space for a garden? Sunny Smile is bred to grow and flower in pots and stays just 15-20” tall. Multi-stem sunflowers are specially bred for cutting, with Valentine, Autumn Beauty and Sunbright being three of the best.

Sunflowers are now available in a wide range of colors, too. On one end of the spectrum is Italian White, followed by pale primrose yellow Pro Cut Lemon and Starburst Lemon Aura. For a classic golden yellow sunflower, you might want to choose Sonja. There are two-tone colors including Strawberry Blonde and Ring of Fire, and I’m also a fan of the deep burgundy and brown colors such as Claret, Velvet Queen, Moulin Rouge and Chocolate.

Teddy Bear sunflower

Teddy Bear sunflowers

Though I don’t care for them myself, lots of people are mad about the pom-pom sunflowers, such as Teddy Bear and Tohoku Yae. For a totally new look, you might try Sparky, with narrow, quill-like petals around a dark chocolate center.

From this dazzling array of choices, I’ve picked just two for my 2008 garden. I’ll be growing Peach Passion and Chocolate Cherry. I hadn’t realized until I wrote them down here, that they sound like something from a dessert menu. All the better!

-Kathy LaLiberte, Director of Gardening