JoAnne Skelly: Wild sunflowers ‘make me happy’

Volunteer sunflowers in JoAnne Skelly’s yard.

Volunteer sunflowers in JoAnne Skelly’s yard.

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A friend asked me recently if I had planted all the sunflowers in my yard. The answer is no. They are all volunteers that probably started with birds dropping seeds. For years I have let them grow because the goldfinches love eating their seeds. These perennial re-seeders spread and change location every year depending on what I did the previous summer that disturbed their habitat.

The sunflowers I’m talking about are the same as those you see in fields, driving down the freeway through Washoe Valley or along other roadways. They aren’t the large, tall ones grown for human-edible seeds. These are more random looking and, depending on how much water they get, they vary in size from 18 inches to 5 feet in height.

Some people won’t let these wildflowers grow in their yards because aphids too seem to like them. However, I think of them as a trap crop that feeds the birds extra protein. If the aphids congregate on the sunflowers, they seem to leave my other flowers alone. The birds eat the aphids. Works for me!

Commercially grown sunflowers have been grown for oilseed in the U.S. since 1966. Of course, Native Americans found a valuable food source in sunflowers, even before the cultivation of corn, domesticating the wild sunflower around 1,000 years ago.

Wild sunflowers are native to North America. I find their multi-bloom branching pattern informal but still delightful. My landscape is designed, if you can call this wild hodgepodge a design, to attract birds, bees and other pollinators. They all love sunflowers. Other native beneficial insects also feed on these prolific bloomers. While both the commercial and wild plants are Helianthus annuus, and in the Asteraceae family, the commercial version produces only one 10-inch to 12-inch bloom while multiple two inch to four inch flowers grow on the wild type. The big-flowered type blooms for one week in mid-summer, while the wild ones bloom for weeks.

Although deer and rabbits are known to browse sunflowers, I have never had a problem. Supposedly deer will defoliate a plant whereas rabbits just eat the young seedlings.

The wild lovelys can tip over but do less of that when they get sunlight from every direction. When they are out in the open, they also develop some wind resistance, but when protected by a wall or building, the stalks are less strong.

Wild sunflowers are not everybody’s favorite, but they always make me happy.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator Emerita at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Email


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