Fall is for gold: golden trees, golden grasses, and golden sunflowers glowing in the fading sun of the season. The many sunflowers of fall are especially glorious, and unlike the common annual sunflowers of summer, they are perennials that come back year after year. Their numerous species are also American natives that deserve a place in our gardens for reasons beyond simple beauty.
Native perennials tend to be tough and easy, and their habitat value is nearly unmatched. Their profuse, daisy flowers draw hundreds of different insect pollinators and they mature to brown, crackling seedheads packed with nutritious seeds for winter birds and other wildlife. There are also lots of different species and cultivated varieties to choose from of varying heights, textures and colors.
Of the tall native sunflowers, the willowleaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius) is a particularly elegant charmer. Its fine, slender leaves and upright habit provide architectural interest through summer when plants are not in bloom. Then from September through October its stems elongate and become topped with starry, clear yellow flowers. The plants are very large, reaching 8 to 10 feet in height. If gardeners cut them back to 3 feet in early summer, they will be more compact and floriferous by fall. Another option is to choose the popular cultivar ‘First Light’, which only reaches 3 to 4 feet in height. This compact variety looks stunning when planted with the red-hued ornamental switchgrass ‘Shenandoah’. (Read more about ornamental grasses here!) For low, tidy flower borders gardeners can also choose from the super dwarf varieties ‘Table Mountain’ (16-18″ in height) and ‘Low Down’ (1–12″ in height).
Another tall, prolific sunflower is Maximilian’s sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), which has strap-like foliage and has upright stems that reach heights between 4 and 10 feet. Flowers appear from late summer to early fall. In the wild, plants are commonly found in prairies as well as limestone-rich soils. As with the willowleaf sunflower, plants can be cut back in June to maintain shorter, denser growth. Otherwise, plants may require staking by bloom time.
The edible tubers of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) make this tall, attractive sunflower a vegetable crop as well. This is a huge sunflower that spreads and needs lots of space, so it truly is better suited to the veggie patch. Stems commonly reach between 6 and 8 feet and become topped with pretty golden flowers by early fall. Thick, tuberous roots are produced by the plants that are crunchy and taste somewhat like a nutty artichoke (another sunflower relative). The tubers can be eaten raw or steamed.
A favorite hybrid sunflower found in garden centers and nurseries is ‘Lemon Queen’, which is a cross between the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) and stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus ssp. subrhomboideus). Its tall stems reach 5 to 8 feet and bloom in late summer to early fall. Plant with feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) and New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) for an impressive fall combination.
Another garden-worthy perennial sunflower with a more manageable height is Helianthus ‘Capenoch Star’. It bears beautiful single flowers of rich gold from September to October atop 4- to 5-foot plants. Though a hybrid, this variety can self-sow, so expect some seedlings. It looks great planted alongside blue-hued grasses, like ‘Heavy Metal’ switch grass.
Other Species Sunflowers
Many sunflower species are a little wild for the garden and best planted in urban meadows, roadsides or pollinator strips. The airy purple disk sunflower (Helianthus atrorubens) and super tall giant sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) fall into this category.
Growing Perennial Sunflowers
Most sunflowers are meadow plants adapted to bright sunlight. Their soil needs vary from plant to plant, but most grow best in load with average to good drainage. The addition of some rich Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend upon planting will help ensure plants get a good head start. High organic matter is especially important for Jerusalem artichoke yields.
Sunflower blooms attract a wide variety of insects including many bees, Syrphid flies, beetles, butterflies, and other insects. The seeds are eaten by many bird species, such as mourning doves, eastern goldfinches, chickadees, and nuthatches as well as rodents. Whitetail deer are even known to browse the foliage.
It’s not too late to add a little gold to your fall landscape. There are so many rewards to reap for such little investment, and with so much variety there’s practically a sunflower for every garden.