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Sunflowers: The garden's late-summer stars

Did you know that lettuce is related to sunflowers? Get a sense of how rich the composite family is and so much more

By Gugulethu Mkhabela | October 15, 2018 | Gardens

Words by Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post

At the start of summer, I thought I would put aside my disdain for amaranth - so coarse, so Victorian - and grow whole stands of it so that I might condescend to change my view of this seedy annual.

Instead, the amaranth spurned me. No wonder people also call it love-lies-bleeding. The tiny black grains of amaranth seed germinated in their pots, but they never seemed to develop beyond a nascent stage, to a point where I could transplant them. I had started them too late, and the strangely dry July didn't help.

I consoled myself by planting other heat-loving annuals: tithonias, zinnias and good old sunflowers. All three are doing quite nicely, which may have something to do with their natural kinship. All of them are part of the vast flower tribe known as composites. These daisies form the largest family of flowering plants, containing as many as 32,000 species. The amaranth family, by contrast, has just 800. Take that, amaranth.

Image: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Botanists call the composite family Asteraceae. Yes, asters are part of the clan, but no single species projects its bold iconography more than the annual sunflower, outlandish in its size but plain and honest in its form. It is a flower a child can understand. I shall never forget my first glimpse of a sunflower field in the south of France, countless thousands of seven-footers whose happy faces moved with the sun.

The farmer thought he or she was planting an oilseed crop, but to me it was an art installation where the power of scale brought a surreal and transcendent quality to the spectacle.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei explored the impact of numbers in his 2010 installation, "Sunflower Seeds," at Tate Modern in London, when the entire floor of Turbine Hall was filled with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, handmade by 1,600 Chinese artisans. The work could be read as the subordination of the individual, but the gardener takes the reverse view, knowing that each seed in a plant is genetically unique and capable of making a whole new plant.


Image: Unsplash

The big sunflower varieties are too primal for my tastes, but the smaller ones still tower over the late-summer garden in their ability to glow in the face of the heat and humidity. If I had not been distracted by amaranth, I would have sought out my preferred varieties of sunflower in May and got them growing as the soil warmed. These include Italian White, actually a lemon yellow, or Buttercream, primrose yellow, or other three- to four-foot varieties with multiple flowers and lots of branching. Red-flowering sunflowers now abound, including Moulin Rouge, Chocolate and Autumn Beauty. If you have room, plant them in large blocks for cutting.

The tithonia, or Mexican sunflower, is a tall but self-supporting annual with handsome, velvety gray-green leaves topped with vibrantly orange daisies. I planted three little potted plants in June in a corner where a currant bush had stood. Set in a triangular pattern about 12 inches apart, the three now form a single, generous stand, seven feet high, five feet across, and covered in blooms and butterflies. 

If you want a sense of just how rich the composite family is, and how much it has shaped cultures across the globe, pick up a copy of Stephen A. Harris's new book, "Sunflowers." "Sunflowers, with their massive yellow flower heads surmounting a single stem and the ability of the young heads to track the sun, have attracted attention since they were introduced to Europe from the Americas in the early sixteenth century," he writes.

 The daisy archetype is a central disk of fertile florets surrounded by a ruff of petals - "rays," they're called.

Image: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post

In some, the family resemblance is obvious - in coneflowers or shasta daisies, for example. Jerusalem artichokes are lovely in flower, but their stems hide barely edible but tenacious tubers. They are neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem. As with other annual and perennial sunflowers, they are from North America. Harris tells us the name may have been a corruption of "girasol," Italian for sunflower.

Some members of the clan are not so obvious. Lettuces are related to sunflowers, though so few of us see them in flower when they are inherently inedible. The thistles of Scotland are composites, as are the edelweiss of Alpine lands. Such a big clan has its rogues. Ragweed, whose pollen is clogging my sinuses, is one of them. Another is the dandelion. In Europe, common ragwort, a pretty cluster of yellow daisies, is toxic to livestock.

But garden composites are some of my favorite plants. I like that what appears to be one big, simple bloom is in fact a cluster of countless florets, each awaiting a bee, each ready to dance the Fibonacci waltz. I like the way goldfinches rip at the seed, ignoring the presence of the gardener.

Image: Unsplash

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of composites is that they come to the fore toward the end of the growing season when we need flowers the most. Asters, goldenrods, zinnias, dahlias, chrysanthemums - all take to the stage for the final act.

Given its size, Harris writes, the composite family provides relatively little by way of economically important plants. The legume family has half the species but vastly more plants of utility. The nightshade family has just 2,600 or so species, but from it we get all the variations of potato, tomato, eggplant and pepper, not to mention tobacco.

But let's put the utility aside and take time to smell the daisies. As Harris writes, "thousands of different insects and hundreds of vertebrates need Asteraceae and the habitats they create." Count me among those vertebrates.

Feature image: Unsplash

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