Sassy Sunflowers


The word “sassy” seems like a good word when considering Helianthus, the genus for sunflowers, because of its double meaning. In a positive context, sassy means “bold,” “fresh,” and “audacious.” They have also become annoyingly invasive. But let’s keep it on the positive side for a moment.

There are at least nine species of Helianthus in Kansas present in nearly every habitat type.  The official state motto of Kansas is the Latin phrase; Ad Astra Per Aspera (meaning “To the Stars Through Difficulty”). This fits perfectly with the state flower of Kansas, annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Its leaves and flowers reach for the sky throughout the state in spite of a variety of harsh conditions it faces with regard to soils, precipitation, and temperature.

At the very least, sunflowers are extremely resourceful, using a variety of strategies to survive. Their colorful ray flowers attract pollinators, and the hundreds of disc flowers per head are easily pollinated. Quick ballpark counts of the number of flowers in one flower head and the number of flower heads on one annual sunflower plant has me estimating that the annual sunflower pictured below will produce more than 100,000 seeds!

Annual sunflower


Many of the perennial sunflower roots feature spreading rhizomes that can help a single plant produce large vegetative colonies. Some are also allelopathic and produce chemicals that hinder the growth of neighboring plants.

Spreading rhizomatous roots of rigid sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)


Sunflowers are also a beautiful hallmark of the late summer and fall prairies of Kansas. They aesthetically grace our roadsides with golden yellow, bolster the food chain by providing nectar for insects during what can be a dry time, when little else is blooming, and their seeds provide loads of food for birds and small mammals throughout the fall and winter.

Willow-leaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius)

Now, for the negatively sassy side of Helianthus that can be defined as “overbold,” “glaring,” and even “flagrant.”

For the reasons described above, Helianthus is very successful in establishing colonies and can do so at the expense of other species. I’ve known this for decades and have typically kept sunflowers out of prairie reconstruction plantings here at the Dyck Arboretum and for landowner consultations. However, knowing that this group of plants is a natural part of the prairie and provides tremendous benefits for wildlife, I decided with our most recent and largest Arboretum prairie reconstruction planting in 2009 to include a little bit of seed (only 0.000079% of the wildflower seed mix) of rigid sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus).

Now I’m second-guessing that decision. A recent (July 2017) vegetative sampling of this prairie reconstruction showed that rigid sunflower was by far the most dominant species of the 56 species of wildflowers and grasses sampled. In the northern, most visible parcel of the Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction, rigid sunflower made up nearly 19% of the species sampled. The second most common species at nearly 9% was also a Helianthus, Maximilian sunflower (H. maximiliani), a species we didn’t even include (at least knowingly) in the seed mix.

Rigid sunflower in Prairie Window Project

Rigid sunflower in Prairie Window Project

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

There is still nice species diversity in this young prairie reconstruction that appears to host a diverse array of wildlife including insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. I’m not ready to throw in the towel and start spraying Helianthus patches. I will, however, begin to try and manage this genus with specially timed mowings and prescribed burns to try and slow its spread and reduce its dominance. Perhaps I’ll even connect with a farmer friend or two that would like to experiment with grazers such as cattle or goats in small enclosures and hope they have a hankerin’ for Helianthus.

In the meantime, I will try to appreciate positively sassy and enjoy the bold, fresh, and audacious floral display of Helianthus that is currently gracing our prairie reconstruction in a big way.


Kansas is the Sunflower State

Excerpt from Kansas legislation:

Whereas, This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future, and is a flower which has given Kansas the world-wide name, “the sunflower state”…

Be it enacted … that the helianthus or wild native sunflower is … designated … the state flower and floral emblem of the state of Kansas.

This past weekend, I traveled to Marion to watch my daughter’s volleyball game.  On the way, I could not help but notice sunflowers blooming.   It was amazing to see the many different varieties and forms scattered throughout the prairies and ravines.  I tried my best at 65 miles per hour to identify them.  They were everywhere and in their full glory.  The yellow flowers stood out amongst the changing prairie grasses.  They brighten up the prairie landscape and signal the changing seasons.  If you are out and about in the coming weeks, here are some of the gorgeous sunflowers you will see.


Willow-leaf Sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius) – This is one of the most common sunflowers and is easily identified because it has many long, narrow, drooping leaves swirled around the stem.  The leaves are not more than a quarter inch wide and make a soft umbrella at the top of the stem as they grow.  The bright yellow clusters of blooms are attractive, but the foliage is equally interesting.

Willowleaf Sunflower


Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii) – This is a very showy sunflower with tall stems that rise above surrounding grasses.  The blooms are vibrant and large.  It is a beautiful sunflower, but beware.  It is rhizomatous and spreads vigorously.  I would not plant this sunflower in a formal landscape.  I would plant it in a prairie or area of the yard that allows it to go wild.  It will quickly take over any garden when it is happy.  We have some along the pond where we can manage its spread with a mower.

Maximilian Sunflower


Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) –  You can find these sunflowers along woodlands and in moist prairies.  It has larger leaves that are thick and rough.  Stems are topped with large golden-yellow flower heads. I have never tasted the tuberous roots but those who have considered them a delicacy.  The roots can be eaten raw or boiled like a potato.

Jerusalem Artichocke


Other sunflowers worth noting: Sawtooth Sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) – Similar to Maximillian Sunflower; Ashy Sunflower (Helianthus mollis) – Shorter with gray foliage; and Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) – Tall with flowers at the ends of the branched stems.


Oh sunflower! The queen of all flowers,

No other with you can compare,

The roadside and fields are made golden

Because of your bright presence there.

“An Ode to the Kansas Sunflower,” Ed Blair, 1901