Keep on the Sunny Side

The thyme is threadbare. The maidenhair is bald. The nasturtiums look like they’ve been hit by a blowtorch. But the tithonia is giddy with blossoms, and helianthus disks sway in the heat.

It must be August in New Orleans. And sunflowers, with their egalitarian growing habits and slight demands, are the warriors of August. “Some people actually start them in August,” says Jean Fahr, executive director of Parkway Partners. If you want an idea of the kinds of punishing conditions sunflowers will tolerate, she says, just look at the pockets of sunflowers that burst forth in flood zones after the storm.

“When I think of growing conditions back then, they were dreadful,” she says. “It didn’t rain for months.”

Helianthus (common sunflower) and tithonia (Mexican sunflower) have one basic requirement: sun. They both like well-drained soil (so avoid planting in clay) and enjoy a touch of alkalinity. If you’re planting over buried brick or bits of old sidewalk, you’re probably fine because these tend to alkalinize the soil. If you’re planting in an area acidified by pine or cypress needles, you might want to sweeten the soil with lime or wood ash.

Eight years ago, I got the idea to rely on sunflowers for summer color from Charlotte Seidenberg, author of The New Orleans Garden. I had just moved back from Vermont, where August is a time of lushness and hollyhocks. Here, I found, the impatiens grew to monstrous heights in the shade, and pansies were impossible beyond May. Everything I thought of as a flower worth growing died in the heat. Seidenberg’s approach, however, was practical: Don’t buck the harsh conditions; embrace them. Her own summer garden, she said, was built around varieties of sunflowers, which love the heat.

If you look in the catalogs for sunflowers, you’ll find many varieties, from the ground-covering beach sunflower to the towering Russian Giant. Colors range from near-white (Italian White) to burgundy (Velvet Queen), and you have options as far as the color and size of the center. Some hybrids scarcely look like sunflowers: Tohoku Yae, for instance, resembles a small football mum, and Double Quick Orange has a generous double blossom with nicely ragged petals. Music Box and Junior are dwarf varieties, and Maximilian is a wild variety that looks like a tangle of yellow daisies. Tithonia affords far fewer options: A search of online sources yielded only Torch and Fiesta del Sol varieties, the latter a noninvasive type growing only 3 feet tall.

Although easy to grow, sunflowers do not necessarily play well with others. Torch, the classic Mexican sunflower, will elbow everything else aside with its flood of orange flowers on stems that can reach 6 feet. Helianthus is held by some to be allopathic, which means that it won’t let anything else grow near it. That’s good if, like me, you’re trying to keep the neighbor’s overgrown grass from encroaching on your fence.

For a controlled approach to sunflowers, start your seeds indoors. By keeping careful track of the varieties you’ve started, you can effectively “paint” your garden by planting the seedlings according to your design.

The white and lemon-yellow types and the dwarf varieties just haven’t worked in my garden. I’ve had success with Moulin Rouge, a red variety, and Henry Wilde, a multi-branched variety with yellow blooms. My most successful planting, however, came after I hoisted a bird feeder. The seedlings that sprang from the gray-striped sunflower seeds cast off by the finches are more robust than anything I’ve special-ordered. So far, the morning glory vines growing nearby are doing a nice job of supporting the heavy heads of the flowers.

A word of caution: Much has been said about remediating contaminated soil by planting sunflowers, which act as “hyper-accumulators” of lead and arsenic. The problem with this approach is that those toxins concentrate in the seed heads, which in turn pose a danger to the animals and people who eat them. Adding them to your compost pile only poisons your compost. If you suspect that your soil contains contaminants, contact the Louisiana State University AgCenter Extension Service (www.lsuagcenter.com or 838-1170) for a soil test. It costs $4 to test for lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium and another $7 to assess your soil for pH, texture and nutrient levels. If you do find contamination, contact Replant New Orleans
(www.replantneworleans.org, 235-2732) for ideas about how to mitigate the problem without passing it on.

Fahr, who helped populate New Orleans with sunflowers post-Katrina by passing out donated sunflower seeds, agrees that they served as a powerful symbol after the storm. Her own advice on hot-weather planting differs, though. “I tell people, if you want a really pretty flower for summer, plant okra,” she says.

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