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Bask in the warm glow of glorious sunflowers

SUNFLOWERS are well named because of their yellow colour and cartoon-sun shape, and because the flowers famously track the sun across the sky all day. Their French name is 'tourne-sol' and the botanical name, helianthus, translates exactly as 'sun-flower', helios is Greek for sun and anthos for a flower.

The ancient Greeks did not know of this flower since it is an American native. The botanical name was given after it arrived in Europe in the 16th century. The native people of America certainly knew about the annual sunflower and used its oily, nutritious seeds for food.

This species is the largest and it is one that most people know about. It can grow to several metres in height, though more usually two metres or so, with a large top flower that can be dinner-plate size. A few smaller flowers are sometimes produced from side-shoots.

There is quite a lot of natural variation of flower colour, size and branching habit, and the seed breeders have exploited this variation to come up with lots of named varieties. Apart from the typical tall sunflower with yellow flower and black flower disc, there are dark-coloured forms with maroon or brown flowers, some with green or yellow discs, others with fully double flowers and no central disc. Some kinds are short and bushy, carrying a large number of relatively small flowers.

Sunflowers are easy to grow from seeds sown this month. They can be sown indoors in a pot or outdoors in the open soil. If sown directly outdoors, watch for slug or snail damage. Sown indoors, the seeds respond to the extra warmth and grow more quickly. They can be started off in small pots on a window sill but must be potted on to a bigger pot as they need it.

The objective should be to provide even growing conditions so the young plants never get a set-back, because this can stunt their future growth. If you want to grow a tall sunflower, it must grow evenly from sowing to flowering. Plants raised indoors can be planted out in May or early June. The sunflower is hardy but likes warmth to grow well.

Choose a sunny, sheltered spot outdoors with really good rich soil. Add plenty of well-rotted organic material and dig it into the soil before planting. This feeds the plant and also retains moisture. Sunflowers may need staking if the wind catches them. There are perennial species of sunflower as well, one of them being the Jerusalem artichoke, but none as dramatic as the annual sunflower.

Irish Independent