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Sunflowers - A vision of gratitude

Those beautiful, tall, (sometimes) yellow flower heads facing the sun. You can't help but smile and acknowledge their beauty when you see them in a field or in a garden.

Vincent van Gogh painted five large canvases of sunflowers in 1888 and 1889 in Arles, in the south of France.

It is said his sunflower paintings had a special significance for Van Gogh: they communicated ‘gratitude’, he wrote.

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower. They are heliotropic, growing or turning towards the light. The flower head follows the movement of the sun during the daytime hours from east to west and then returns to the east in the evening. Daisies (Bellis perennis) and Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) are also considered heliotropic, both of which we have growing in our meadows at the nature centre.

We were fortunate this year to have a small number of annual sunflowers self-seed around our new educational pond.

 The photo above shows the educational pond with an annual sunflower, lower left corner, just starting to bud.

 It inspired us to consider taking a small section of one of the vegetable gardens and cultivating the area. We will dry seeds from perennial sunflowers and plant them next spring. Looking forward to a patch of flowers that makes everyone smile and possibly incites feelings of gratitude!

We also have Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) in our pollinating garden. This is a perennial plant and has grown to a height of nine feet! It's a great pollinating plant for butterflies.

Sunflowers make exceptional host plants and are a great source of nectar and pollen. They improve the biodiversity in pollinating gardens by supporting native pollinators such as butterflies, bees, beetles and hummingbirds. You can purchase different varieties (around 70 species) of sunflower seeds from pollen-producing, pollen free, single stems, branching stems, stems that grow two feet or rise up to over 16 feet in height, seeds that are edible and the list goes on. So if you want to help the pollinators, make sure you purchase perennial seeds that are prolific pollen producers. The flower heads on the perennial plants will be a little smaller compared to annual sunflowers.

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male part of a plant to the female. There are two basic types of pollination — cross-pollination and self- pollination. The good news is that sunflowers do both. So sunflowers are great plants for their own survival and for the pollinators.

Planting sunflowers is relatively easy since they are native plants. They are adaptable, fast-growing and pest resistant. They are also heat and drought-tolerant once established. You can soak the seeds about two weeks before planting to encourage germination. Once the threat of frost has passed you can plant the seeds approximately one inch beneath the soil and about two to three feet apart. You can expect blooms between 80-120 days after planting depending on the variety.

It's best to plant in full sun and if possible near a fence or wall to give the plants some protection from wind. If this is not possible you can insert bamboo stakes into the ground to help support the growing plant. The leaves will grow first and then you will see small flower buds starting to form. It will take approximately three to five weeks for the buds to fully open attracting pollinators to visit. Depending on the variety of seeds, secondary buds will begin to form, developing new flowers for the remainder of the season. If you have perennial sunflowers you should divide them every two to three years. Sunflowers are late bloomers like asters and goldenrods and help pollinators late in the season.

As a nature activity for you and your family, you can observe and record the pollinators collecting nectar and pollen. This year we actually could see bees stuffed with pollen on their hind legs as they worked gathering the pollen and pollinating different plants.

Hope you are inspired to create a sunflower patch in your own backyard next spring.

Blog courtesy of June Crinnion. The Robert L. Bowles Nature Centre, founded by June Crinnion and Michael Elmer, is a nature and wellness centre in Ramara, named after Lake Simcoe Living Nature Detective Bob Bowles to honour his role in protecting and caring for the environment. For more information, go to

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