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Dr. Robyn Puffenbarger
Volunteer sunflower in my garden, it escaped from the bird feeders, germinated, and grew!

Sunflowers for pollinators

There are two annuals I want every year in my garden: zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). Both are incredible as pollinator magnets, but only one is native to North America. If you guessed sunflower, you are correct! Zinnias originate from Central America, so not too far away!

Sunflowers have an incredible history as an important crop for the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains: People harvested the seeds to grind for flour and oil. Later, this native wildflower found its way to Russia where it was selectively bred for a single, giant flower that happens to have a tall stalk of 12–14 feet! You might have this in your garden, like I do, the Russian Mammoth. I love watching the bees on the sunflowers followed by birds for the seeds.

Annual sunflowers are one of the easiest plants to grow: Pop a seed in the ground, water it and up it comes! The only problem I have is birds or other predators eating the sunflowers I want to grow, so I use a basket or row cover that is held off the ground — so the seeds underneath can germinate. And I love the array of colors, sizes, and shapes of sunflowers. You can find varieties that are yellow, red, white, gold and burgundy. The size range is incredible from 2 to 12 feet tall. Do you want one stalk with one flower, one stalk with many flowers? Or instead of the classic head with seeds inside, petals on edge, how about the Lion’s Mane, with a shaggy head that looks like all petals!?

What I learned last year is that all sunflowers are not equal for pollinators. One part of the selective breeding program removed the pollen! While that eliminates the yellow powder you might see under a vase if you cut sunflowers to bring inside, this means pollinators are not getting a high-protein meal when they visit your plants. A quick search, and I had a long list of sunflowers with pollen to buy this spring. I made sure I had Lemon Queen, Autumn Beauty, and my huge friend, Black Russian. As you think about which sunflower types to plant in your garden, remember to include a few with pollen to benefit the insects!

Happy Gardening!

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VHG Co-Host, Professor at Bridgewater College, and a Central Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener