CO-Horts Blog

Monday, June 29, 2020

The joy of sunflowers

By  Irene Shonle,  El Paso County Extension

This year I have really fallen in love with sunflowers. I have always liked them, but this year, I am in love. I love them because of their cheerful disposition, because they are so dang easy to grow, and even more because they are such great plants for the habitat garden.
Wild sunflowers in my garden (Helianthus annuus)

Sunflowers lure pollinators in with their tall form and bright-colored flowers and then  they reward them with abundant sources of both pollen and nectar. Both smaller bees and butterflies find an easy perch on their wide flat heads. Bees that are attracted to sunflowers include bumble bee, digger bee, large carpenter bee, small carpenter bee, leafcutter bee, sweat bee, plasterer bee, andrenid (miner) bee, and honey bees. Even the leaves of sunflower are a good source of food for a variety of butterfly caterpillars including American Lady, Silvery Checkerspot, and Gorgone Checkerspot. Later, the black, oily seeds provide food for a variety of birds such as finches, juncos, and chickadees.  Make sure to save a few seeds yourself to plant for next year.

Another reason to like sunflowers is to provide quick screening from neighbors.  If you have planted a slower-growing shrub or vine to block a view, but want more instant results, plant some of the larger sunflowers. Some of the ones in my garden are already 7 feet tall at the end of June!
Sunflowers (not yet in bloom) blocking the view of my neighbors while my apache plume shrub grows in 

You can also use sunflowers to create  a hidden, shady fort for children to play in.
Sunflower fort - picture from Pinterest

Some tips for growing sunflowers:
Plant in full sun.  Sunflowers, especially the wild-type sunflower, are drought tolerant, but will bloom better and grow taller with some water.  That said, I am astonished at how well the wild sunflowers are flowering here in our extreme drought and heat this summer.

Plant in groups to make it easy on pollinators to forage efficiently.  Don’t buy pollen-less single-stem varieties -- these are good for the cut-flower industry, but bad for pollinators.  Branched sunflowers are a much better bet, plus produce more blooms for you to enjoy.

Plant several different varieties to provide a continuous supply of flowers from late summer to fall. Look for “days to bloom” on the back of seed packets and plant a variety.  As a gardener, you can revel in colors ranging from yellows to oranges to reds, with wildly different sizes of plants and flowers. You can also sow sunflowers every couple of weeks in the spring to increase bloom time.
One of the many varieties of sunflowers you can grow - this just bloomed in my garden yesterday


  1. Thanks for the information about butterfly caterpillars that eat sunflower plant leaves.

  2. Agree! I also love sunflowers. We feed black oilers to the birds and always get a few sunflowers growing in the yard. I leave them because they are no maintenance, beautiful, and their seeds also feed the birds. Bonus!

  3. To boost further delight regarding sunflowers, Colorado Gardener's May 2017 issue features an article by Eric Eaton on the Sunflower Ecosystem. Generously available free of charge online:

    1. Thanks - that was a great article, and expanded even more on how sunflower is a great habitat plant.