I am continually mystified by the wonderous nature of plants. Seriously, how cool are they? But what’s even cooler is discovering the science behind those seemingly magical moments in plant life. Take the sunflower, for example. The garden this year has literally erupted with the bright helianthus annuus and the abundance of such a tall and brilliant plant has me wondering about its potential.
One certainly can make the assertion that the sunflower is a weed, a competitor for precious resources, blocking out sunlight in its upward flight, hoarding the already scarce water supply with its strangling roots, leaving little behind it an effort to develop that characteristic inflorescence yellow head atop a prickly, lanky stalk. So you ask, “why do we have so many growing here at school?”. Do they benefit the garden at all?
While it may not be a popular response among all gardeners, my answer is most certainly a yes. Less than seeing this golden bumper crop as a fierce stem-flexing competitor, we shall consider the tall beauty as more of a “companion” plant.
Take for instance, this clever idea had by numerous Scarlet Runner Beans in need of a tall medium to stretch their lengthy vines – up the sunflower she goes! Each of the tiny red flowers, when pollinated, will grow into an edible, delicious, scarlet red bean.
Given their placement throughout the garden, the numerous stalks and leaves provide protection from the gusty Southwestern winds and a bit of shady relief from the heat of the August Sun.
And they are quite beautiful. If nothing else, the droves of sunflowers have caught the eyes of more daily Osage Ave commuters and passers-by with their brilliant yellow glow in the early morning light. And speaking of turning heads, did you know that sunflowers practice heliotropism in their early stages of growth? That is, the young flower heads face the rising sun and track it through the sky with a certain photosythetic obedience. But, as the flowers reach maturity they ultimately rest their faces to the East and remain in a steadfast gaze until the sun reaches lower on the horizon and the cool nights cause tiny yellow flowers to harden into seed.
Personally (and I think I speak for the birds and the bees, too), these yellow giants have been delightful to say the least. While we may be a bit more adamant about regulating their growth next Spring, they’ve served a biological purpose here and have undoubtedly shaped the garden in a unique and fairytalesque kind of way. Thanks guys, take a bow!