Sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) are starting to shine on roadsides and in gardens throughout Georgia. This almost uniquely North American genus includes 27 species in Georgia, including species indigenous from the mountains to the coast. The genus name Helianthus comes from the Greek words helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower. While most species are perennial, several are annual, including two very well-known ones: the common sunflower bred for show and seeds (Helianthus annuus) and the Stone Mountain daisy (Helianthus porteri).
Most of the sunflowers are perennial. On the roadsides, you might spot some of the tough, rhizomatous species like woodland, hairy, and small-headed sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus , H. hirsutus, and H. microcephalus). They have oppositely arranged leaves with scratchy surfaces and flower heads that are a composite of tiny disk flowers (in the center) and showy ray flowers around the edge (what we think of as petals).
In the garden, several sunflowers have found their way into favor. Swamp sunflower (H. angustifolius and H. floridanus) are tall perennials that flower extravagantly in October. Helianthus tuberous is known as Jerusalem artichoke; it’s a tall perennial known for spreading but the roots are edible. One of my favorites is the purple-disk sunflower (H. atrorubens), one of the few species to have a dark center. Beach sunflower (H. debilis) and long-leaf (H. longifolius) are two of several species in the Coastal Plain.
Sunflowers are a good addition to the wildlife garden. Bees are probably the best pollinators of sunflowers and seed-eating birds like goldfinches love the seeds no matter which species you plant. Of course, we’ll get to enjoy the beautiful late summer blooms! Look for perennial sunflowers at plant sales coming up in the fall, including ours on September 22nd.