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There's something afoot in the world of towering, golden sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). These annual kings of the garden are receiving even more acclaim with the addition of cultivars that shine in a rainbow of colors, textures, and sizes. The attention-getting sun-lovers glow in shades of burgundy, chocolate, peach, orange, and even vanilla. They come in dwarf sizes and some feature multiple blooms per stem with multiple stems per stalk.

"I love sunflowers because they're fun, lighthearted, and make people smile," says Des Moines floral designer Phyllis Griffith. Griffith fashions these new cultivars into bouquets that turn gardeners' assumptions about sunflowers on their heads. No longer are sunflowers the gangly blooms for the back of the border. Even gardeners with small yards can easily find room for the new dwarf varieties, such as 'Music Box' and 'Big Smile', combining them with other bright flowers, such as zinnias and celosias.

The delightful variations in color and size are part of sunflowers' charms. "They lend a casual country elegance to the garden," says Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden Seeds in Felton, California. "They just make everyone happy."

Ornamental sunflowers work well in arrangements with materials that peak at the same time, including cattails, berries, grasses, and other flowers, such as dahlias and gazania.

Cut-flower farmers Quinton and Carolyn Tschetter of Oskaloosa, Iowa, raise 15-20 sunflower varieties every year, sowing seeds every two weeks to stagger the bloom times. They begin planting in March in a hoop house and harvest through the end of September. The Tschetters avoid most insect damage by harvesting the blooms before they open. "They have to be starting to open before we cut them," Quinton says.

Tall sunflower cultivars, such as 'Velvet Queen' and 'Moonwalker', are prone to wind damage, particularly if strong gusts follow a heavy rain. One trick is to plant three or four rows close together (about 6 inches apart) so they hold each other up. Or try growing broomcorn or millet close by to serve as a windbreak. Two-foot-tall dwarf varieties suit small gardens and containers.

For the Tschetters, sunflowers capture the essence of summer. "When you look out to the fields and see that bright, sunny face smiling at you, it's wonderful," Quinton says. "It's a great way to start the day." Dazzling blooms and surprising hues give sunflowers real flower power. Try one - or more! - of these towering, sun-loving annuals to boost the fun factor in your plantings and bouquets.




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