Learn how to choose the right sunflower varieties for your needs

How to Choose the Best Sunflower Varieties for Your Needs

Johnny's Flower Product Manager Hillary Alger & Trialing Technician Joy Longfellow lead the sunflower trials field forum, August 2019.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Various Types of Sunflowers

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 daunting. This article explains basic advantages and disadvantages of the various types and offers some recommendations for choosing the sunflower varieties that best suit your needs and preferences.

Top Sunflower Quick-Picks

For those in a rush I'll cut to the chase: If I had to pick the easiest, most reliable sunflowers for the beginning grower as well as for no-nonsense sucession-planting and harvesting, I would recommend the 'Sunrich' series or the 'Pro Cut' series. I explain why below, but first I'd like to review some sunflower basics.

The 2 Primary Types of Sunflowers

There are two basic types of cut-flower sunflowers:

  1. Single-stem types
  2. Branching types

These two types are so different from one another that I almost think of them as different crops. I 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 some pros and cons of each type.

About the Author
Lynn Byczinski
Lynn Byczinski, Author & Founder of Growing for Market
While growing organic vegetables and cut flowers for market, Lynn Byczynski decided to create a magazine to help market gardeners nationwide share experiences and information. First published in January 1992, Growing for Market has remained in publication ever since, now renowned for realistic articles that provide practical, how-to information about growing and selling produce and flowers.

Lynn and her family have been growing vegetables and cut flowers since 1988 on about 2 acres of their 20-acre farm near Lawrence, Kansas.

Lynn is also the author/editor of two of our favorite books about market farming:

SINGLE-STEM SUNFLOWERS

The Sunrich and ProCut Series are single-stem sunflower varieties suited to pros and beginners alike
The 'Sunrich' series and 'ProCut' series are single-stem sunflower varieties well-suited to beginners and pros alike.

Single-stem varieties, including the Sunrich and ProCut series, are pollenless hybrids, which means they do not drop pollen on furniture, tablecloths, and clothing, as non-hybrid sunflowers do. While pollenless varieties do still produce nectar, and thus sustain nectar-feeding organisms such as butterflies and hoverflies, all bees need both nectar and pollen to survive. Pollenless sunflower varieties planted in proximity to "regular" (bisexual) sunflowers are likely to be visited and pollinated to some extent by pollinators that have visited the regular flowers. And, if left to mature on the stem rather than being cut, they will also be likely to produce some seed.

Continuing on the plus side, many single-stem sunflower varieties are really quick to bloom, needing just 60 days from seeding date to reach harvestability. In addition, there is a good selection of "day-neutral" single-stem varieties that can be grown in a hoophouse early in spring or late in fall. (See our article on how day length affect flowers for more detail.)

Single-stemmed plants are more mutable than branching types in regard to the size of the flower you choose to produce. The plants can either be crowded into a 6" x 6" spacing to produce smaller, bouquet-sized flowers; or they can be spaced a foot apart to produce dinner-plate sized flowers. (See our video on planning, spacing, and sequencing tips for sunflowers to learn more about how spacing influences bloom size.)

Single-stem varieties additionally 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, particularly the pollenless ones — up to 2 weeks in plain water.

On the other hand, single-stem sunflowers produce just 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 need to succession-plant single-stem sunflowers every 10–14 days, all season, if you want to have a continuous supply. (See our 3 sunflower succession-planting programs for guidance.) If you're selling your blooms, you would need to charge more for single-stemmed cuts to make a good return on your investment.

10 Recommendations for Single-stem Sunflowers

ProCut White Nite Sunflower.
'ProCut White Nite': Petals open with a creamy vanilla tint that turns white within a few days. Excellent choice if you are looking for a variety for weddings or to dye.
  1. Earliest variety: 'ProCut Orange Excel'
  2. Best selection for downy mildew-resistance: 'ProCut Orange DMR'
  3. Most uniform in appearance and harvest date: 'ProCut Horizon'
  4. Perfect for when you want to "grow pale and interesting": 'ProCut White Lite' & 'ProCut White Nite'
  5. Best single-stemmed sultry redhead: 'ProCut Red'
  6. Most uniform in appearance and harvest date: 'ProCut Horizon'
  7. Beloved for its upfacing "lollipop" appearance: 'Vincent's Choice'
  8. Best for winter production in the South; tall and stately, with classical good looks: 'Full Sun Improved'
  9. Best for the "3D look" under lower light intensity (early summer, late summer, and greenhouse conditions), drawing the eye from its creamy lemon tips into vibrant yellow petals toward a mesmerizingly dark disk: 'Sunrich Limoncello Summer'
  10. Best for banner yields of delicious edible seeds: 'Royal Hybrid 1121'

BRANCHING SUNFLOWERS

Branching sunflower 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 (with blooms that have more than one layer of petals) are branching types. In other words, this category has a lot of pizzazz.

On the other hand, the stems on most branching sunflowers are neither as long nor as strong as those of single-stem varieties. Most need 65 days or more to bloom, and they also require a lot more space; they should be planted 18" apart. And their lengthier production cycle lends insects and disease more opportunity to attack the plants. Yet by growing branching types, you are at the same time sustaining the beneficial organisms that rely on them. Many branching cultivars do produce copious amounts of pollen — look for those identified as pollenless if you think this is going to be a problem for your customers. And as a group, the branching varieties are not especially long-lived in the vase, some with just 5 days of vase life.

10 Recommendations for Branching Sunflowers

Chocolate is a branching sunflower variety that attracts and sustains pollinators.
'Chocolate': Good choice for attracting and sustaining bees and other pollinating insects.
  1. Best branching varieties for cut-flower bouquets, with strong stems and small, uniform upright blooms: 'Sonja' & 'Soraya'. (Both form pollen, however, in case you need to avoid it.) 'Soraya' is also the first All-America Selections Award-winning sunflower.
  2. Best light-bloomed, quick-growing, pollenless variety: 'Buttercream'
  3. Best strong-stemmed, pollenless burgundy variety: 'Moulin Rouge'
  4. Best multicolored, pollenless, day-length-neutral variety: 'Strawberry Blonde'
  5. Smart choice for a prolonged harvest window, with early and prolific blooms in a punch-pretty palette: 'Strawberry Lemonade Mix'
  6. Best for bright gold, lavishly-double blooms borne atop towering plants: Organic 'Goldy Double'
  7. Choice of chocolate lovers and bee devotees: 'Chocolate'
  8. Best sunflower for fragrant bouquets: 'Florenza'
  9. Best for blasting out consistent, bicolor blooms on short, sturdy plants: 'Firecracker'
  10. Cuddle-worthy children's favorite for container-growing: 'Teddy Bear'

More to Explore

Sun-Fill Green & Purple bring the sunflower-back look to the forefront.
The calyxes of Sun-Fill Green and Sun-Fill Purple wrap toward the front of the bloom, to cloak the sunflower face within a large fringe of sepals. Bred by American sunflower geneticist–breeder Tom Heaton, these two varieties make superb bouquet fillers but are also remarkable on their own.

These are just the basic considerations in choosing varieties, but each year new cultivars are introduced that help to dispel the objections to each type. There are now branching varieties that bloom in 60 days and have no pollen, such as 'Buttercream' and 'Moulin Rouge'; there are single-stem varieties that are fully double, such as 'Double Quick Orange'; and there are mesmerizing bicolors such as 'ProCut Red/Lemon Bicolor.'

As for my recommendation of the Sunrich and ProCut series, 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 just want a basic sunflower, these series provide the perfecting starting point. And for the advanced as well as the aspirational grower, these two series form an excellent basis for sunflower succession planting and harvesting.

But there are so many more sunflower varieties to explore, with single-stem, branching, tall, dwarf, pollenless, and "regular" types, as well as novel shapes, sizes, and multicolor options. Over time, you will surely want to explore other options, and eventually you will find the combination that is right for you.