By Lynn Byczynski
Sunflowers are a popular crop, and a great way for vegetable growers to experiment with adding flowers to the product mix. With more than 50 cultivars to choose from, getting started with sunflowers can be a bit intimidating. I'll explain the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of cut sunflowers.
For those in a hurry I'll cut to the chase: If I had to pick the easiest, most sure-fire variety for a beginning grower, I would recommend the 'Sunrich' series or the 'Pro Cut' series. I will explain why in a moment, but first I'll backtrack to the background information.
There are two basic categories of cut-flower sunflowers: the single stem types and the branching types. These two types are so different from one another that I think of them almost as different plants. I personally grow the single stem types because they are preferred in my market, but I can see where some growers would do better with the branching types. Here are the pros and cons of each.
Single-stem varieties, including the Sunrich and Pro Cut series, are pollenless hybrids, which means they don't drop pollen on furniture, tablecloths, and clothing, as non-hybrid sunflowers do. Many are really quick to bloom, just 60 days from seeding. There's a good selection of day-neutral varieties (see article on day length), which means they can be grown in a hoophouse early in spring or late in fall. They can be crowded into a 6" x 6" spacing to produce a bouquet-sized flower. Or they can be spaced a foot apart to make dinner-plate sized flowers.
Single-stem varieties have strong, thick stems and flowers of substance that make a statement and fill out a bouquet, which endears them to florists. And their vase life is amazing - up to two weeks in plain water.
On the negative side, single stem sunflowers produce one flower from one seed. (A few cultivars may send up small secondary flowers in mid-summer, but this is not the norm.) This means you have to succession plant every 10-14 days all season if you want to have a continuous supply. You would also need to charge $1 to $2 each for them in order to make any money.
Branching varieties produce numerous blooms over a long period of time, so they don't need to be succession planted as frequently. There are numerous unusual colors among the branching varieties, including burgundy, chocolate, bronze, and bicolors. Most of the doubles (more than one layer of petals) are branching types. In other words, this category has a lot of pizzazz.
However, the stems on most branching sunflowers are not as long or strong as the single-stem varieties. Most take about 90 days or more to bloom, and they require a lot of space; they should be planted 18" apart. Their long production time creates more opportunity for insects and disease to attack the plants. Many branching cultivars have copious amounts of pollen. (Look for those identified as pollenless if you think this is going to be a problem for your customers.) As a group, the branching varieties are not especially long-lived in the vase, some with only 5 days of vase life.
These are the basic considerations in choosing varieties, but new cultivars are being introduced every year that banish some of the objections to each type. There are now branching varieties that bloom in 60 days and have no pollen, such as Moulin Rouge and Peach Passion; there are single stem varieties that are fully double, such as Double Quick Orange; and there are bicolors, such as Pro Cut Red/Lemon Bicolor.
As for my recommendation of Sunrich and Pro Cut, I see these as offering a strong sunflower with the traditional appearance that appeals to all kinds of people, hence they are easy to grow and sell. They are not finicky about when you grow them, and there are plenty of color choices among the two series. If you want just a basic sunflower, this is a good place to start. Over time, you will surely want to try others and eventually you'll find the combination that is right for you.
Lynn Byczynski is the editor of Growing for Market and the publisher of The Hoophouse Handbook.