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MAGIC OF PLANT BREEDING AND SELECTION BRINGS PRESTIGE TO SUNFLOWERS

Golden-yellow sunflowers with their dark-black eyes are the first flowers I remember from childhood. These miniature bits of sunshine were not pampered and coddled garden prima donnas but tough plants that could survive almost anywhere. Their tenacity meant they were considered weeds by some horticulturally disadvantaged adults. To a small child like me, they were fascinating flowers with almost magical powers.

These glorious blossoms gave great pleasure to those who knew their secrets. Because grownups considered them weeds, I had unlimited access to as many as I could find. Each flower provided an instant yellow petal. Flower centers became fine missiles for target practice. I could count on a bouquet to get me tasty cookies or other treats if I delivered it to the right recipient.My greatest satisfaction with these blossoms was their ability to find the sun. Each evening, when day was done, the flowers faced due west toward the Stansbury Mountains. Without fail, as the sun peeked over the Oquirrhs the next morning, they had magically done an about face, and the golden blossoms faced east. This attribute of always facing the sun gave this flower its common and scientific name.

The common sunflower gets its Latin name of Helianthus from helios, meaning sun, and anthos, meaning flower. The species name of annus meant annual. Although I had no knowledge of Latin, I would have chosen the name sunflower if I had named the blossoms. They always resemble pictures small children draw of the sun with a round center and spreading rays.

Early Mormon pioneers discovered these flowers were so prolific that within four years of settling here they passed an ordinance banning them from the roadside and ditches. Early travelers even called Salt Lake City the "City of the Sunflower." One legend refers to the Mormons scattering the seeds along the trail so those who followed could find the route. Sunflowers, of course, long predated these early travelers.

Why has such an old flower suddenly created such a new interest? The National Garden Bureau has designated 1996 as the "Year of the Sunflower." This notoriety comes because sunflowers are far more diverse than the varieties I enjoyed as a child. Through the magic of plant breeding and selection, these flowers are now honored and celebrated as garden and food plants.

I have a strong preference for plants that take care of themselves. Despite their current refinement, sunflowers do just that. They still have their basic survival genetics. The country sunflowers survived without care, and garden varieties are equally tough. Sow seeds directly in almost any kind of soil after danger of hard frost is past. The best flowers develop on plants grown in loose, fertile soil. Plan on flowers eight to 11 weeks after planting. They grow quickly, but don't add too much fertilizer or you get extra foliage and no flowers.

Space the plants according to their ultimate size. Most varieties need to have 2- to 2 1/2 feet to spread. Tall plants may need staking, as they soar toward heights that may reach 18 feet.

The plants are drought tolerant but benefit from deep, infrequent irrigations.

Pests usually present few problems. Although wild varieties always had "bugs," they did little damage. Thrips, aphids and other flower pests can usually be discouraged by washing them away with a stream of water. The most serious pests I have battled have been birds in the large, edible-seeded varieties. It is no surprise that the featured creatures go after these seeds because they are the principle ingredient in most bird feeds. The easiest solution is old pantyhose stretched over the heads as they ripen. I must admit a certain satisfaction in frustrating the birds as they seek to destroy my crop of seeds. Ironically, they will get most of it when I feed them during the winter.

When I picked sunflowers as a child, I had little concern for the more aesthetically refined side of the blossoms. Dusty roadsides bordered with golden-yellow flowers still evoke pleasant memories of childhood. I did not plant these magical flowers, but I enjoyed them immensely. I now happily include them in my garden for their beauty and edibility. Most of all, I grow them for the special magic and mystery from following the sun that I enjoyed as a child and still cannot fully explain.

- THE UTAH IRIS SOCIETY'S 50th annual iris show, "Utah's 100 Years of Statehood with Iris," will be held at the Sugarhouse Garden Club Center, 1602 E. 2100 South, on Saturday, May 25, from 1-6 p.m. and Sunday, May 26, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The public is invited.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Sunflowers - variety list

NAME: Floristan

FLOWER COLOR: bicolor, rusty-red petals

SIZE: 6"

HEIGHT: 36"

COMMENT: well-branched

NAME: Hallo

FLOWER COLOR: yellow, dark centers

SIZE: 6"

HEIGHT: 60"

COMMENT: 36" flower stems

NAME: Holiday

FLOWER COLOR: golden yellow, dark centers

SIZE: 6"

HEIGHT: 48"

COMMENT: hedge-type growth habit

NAME: Music Box

FLOWER COLOR: yellow to mahogany red

SIZE: 4"

HEIGHT: 28:

COMMENT: Hedge-type growth habit

NAME: Prado Red

FLOWER COLOR: red

SIZE: 5"

HEIGHT: 48-60"

COMMENT: multiple flowers, F1 hybrid

NAME: Sonja

FLOWER COLOR: golden orange, dark centers

SIZE: 4"

HEIGHT: 42"

COMMENT: branched stems, long vase life

NAME: Valentine

FLOWER COLOR: lemon yellow

SIZE: 4"

HEIGHT: 60"

COMMENT: flowers in 56 days

NAME: Big Smile

FLOWER COLOR: golden yellow, dark center

SIZE: 6"

HEIGHT: 12"

COMMENT: shortest variety

NAME: Sunspot

FLOWER COLOR: yellow, dark center

SIZE: 12"

HEIGHT: 18-24"

COMMENT: edible seed

POLLENLESS VARIETIES

NAME: Moonbright

FLOWER COLOR: lemon yellow, dark center

SIZE: 5"

HEIGHT: 60"

COMMENT: F1 hybrid

NAME: Pollenless full sun

FLOWER COLOR: yellow

SIZE: 18"

HEIGHT: 10"

COMMENT: Mammoth-type

NAME: Sunbright

FLOWER COLOR: golden yellow, dark center

SIZE: 6"

HEIGHT: 72"

COMMENT: F1 hybrid

NAME: Sunbeam

FLOWER COLOR: golden yellow, green yellow center

SIZE: 5"

HEIGHT: 72"

COMMENT: F1 hybrid

NAME: Sunrich Lemon

FLOWER COLOR: yellow, black disk center

SIZE: 4"

HEIGHT: 36-48"

COMMENT: early flowering

NAME: Sunrich Orange

FLOWER COLOR: golden yellow

SIZE: 4"

HEIGHT: 36-48"

COMMENT: early flowering

Note: Mammoth is the most widely gown seed variety. It was originally offered in 1880 as Mammoth Russian. It grows up to 18".