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Who doesn’t love a sunflower?

The flowers get their name because of their resemblance to the sun with their big golden blooms, and the way they turn their heads to bask in its rays throughout the day.

“There is so much that’s special about sunflowers,” says Neville MacKay, owner of My Mother’s Bloomers flower shop in Halifax. “They are one of the least pretentious flowers. They just want to bloom. They demand attention but they are very subtle.”

Growing them is a cinch (unless you’re unlucky and all you end up with are three-centimetre snacks for slugs. Read on for tips to avoid that!)

“You could buy a bag of birdseed and throw it in the garden out back,” says MacKay. “Sunflowers grow like hairs on a cat’s back.”

The North American native plants have long been popular in Atlantic Canada but have been gaining in appeal over the past decade, as South American varieties extended the flowering season beyond the typical August and September.

Beyond their bright blooms, more and more people are planting them as a source of pollen for butterflies and bees and seeds for birds and other wildlife.

People are also embracing them as a symbol of solidarity with Ukraine as it fights the Russian invasion. In early 2022, a video went viral of a Ukrainian woman offering sunflower seeds to a heavily armed Russian soldier and urging him to carry them in his pocket ­— so they would grow when he dies. The plant’s roots in the country stretch farther. As reported in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, the flowers made their way to Ukraine in the mid-18th century, decades after Spaniards brought them from the New World to Europe. They became a significant cash crop for their seeds and oil, and are the country’s national flower, a symbol of peace.

Atlantic Canadian gardeners typically choose their varieties for their blooms or height.

“They are one of the cornerstone flowers of summertime for a lot of people,” says John Jefferies, seed manager with Veseys Seeds in York, Prince Edward Island. “There are lots of options: tall ones, short ones, single flower ones, multiple-flower ones, and many different colours. For some people, it’s all about the size of the plant itself more than the flower, like having a giant-pumpkin growing contest.”

Some sunflower varieties can reach almost five metres tall.

“Sunflowers are so appealing to people because they are so cheerful,” says cut-flower farmer Megan Balodis, who runs Marshdale Farms in Pictou County. “They are said to symbolize happiness, positivity, and loyalty.”

Pollenless varieties are best if adding sunflowers to a cutting garden; no one wants pollen messing up a wedding scene or upholstery at home.

Balodis usually transplants seedlings into her garden after starting them in trays but says direct seeding in the garden is also an option. “Be sure to protect the seedlings from birds and slugs,” she says. “Our local deer population is quite taken with sunflowers as well.”

She controls the size of the flowers by how closely she plants them together. “Bouquet-size sunflowers should be grown about four inches (10 centimetres) apart,” she says. “This makes them easier to arrange.”

For the longest vase life, she recommends harvesting just as the petals start to open. Take most of the leaves off and put the stems in a bucket or vase with cool water for a couple hours. “Then you can arrange them however you like,” she says. “A big ceramic jug is perfect for an armload. They are heavy, so in a mixed arrangement you can stuff chicken wire in the bottom of the vase or use waterproof tape to make a grid across the top.”

Jodi DeLong, Saltscapes’s flower and garden expert, advises not planting sunflowers outside until the risk of frost is past.

“I start mine indoors in peat pots and transplant them after they get about six inches (15 centimetres) tall and the risk of frost is well past, as well as the risk of plant pests eating the tender young seedlings,” she says. “Be sure to add plenty of compost to the area of the garden where you’ve planted them, and fertilize them regularly because they are heavy feeders.”

Plant breeders have been developing sunflower varieties in countless sizes and colours.

There are giants like Russian Mammoth and Skyscraper, which can stretch up to 3.6 metres in height, with huge flowers. For container planting on a deck or in a small garden, petite varieties, such as Big Smile and Pacino, are good options and usually don’t get more than a metre tall.

There are varieties that are pale yellow (Lemon Queen), red (Moulin Rouge), orange (Orange Sun) burgundy (Chianti), and various bicolour-shades, usually yellow with a ring of contrasting colour, such as Fireworks, Ring of Fire, and Prado Red Shades.

“One of the most unique looking varieties is the fluffy, double-petalled yellow-orange variety Teddy Bear, which is also thought to have been one of the varieties Vincent van Gogh painted in his famous painting of these delightful blooms,” says DeLong.

As to favourites? DeLong says she loves the differently coloured ones but adds, “Sunflowers are like potato chips, you can’t have just one.”     

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