Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Fabulous Fall-blooming Willowleaf Sunflower

'At the other extreme from [the common annual sunflower] is the graceful sunflower (Helianthus orgyalis), worth growing for its foliage alone.  It has narrow, drooping leaves, grows ten feet high, and has small, pale-yellow flowers scattered along spikes sometimes four feet long...
Buy this plant this year.  You will never regret it.'
~Thomas McAdam
'The Best Tall Perennials', The Garden Magazine, Volume I, 1905


Europeans discovered this North American perennial during explorations of the Arkansas Territory in the early 1800's.  They coined it the 'Graceful Sunflower' and gave it the botanical name Helianthus orgyalis, which is translated loosely as 'man-sized sunflower'.  ('Orgyalis' is derived from a classical Greek distance measurement 'orgya', in which you stretch out your arms as far as you can and measure from fingertip to fingertip.  Historically, this means around 6 feet or as tall as a man.) 

Helianthus salicifolia in front of the veggie garden
Somewhere along the way, the name got changed to Helianthus salicifolia ('salicifolia' meaning 'willow-leaved'), and the common name is now, aptly, the 'Willowleaf Sunflower'.  Under any name, it is a beautiful plant, strikingly tall, with lovely and graceful narrow leaves.


I have it planted in the front corner of my vegetable garden, as I just can't help but try to pretty up what is normally a more utilitarian type of space.  I love how throughout the summer it keeps growing taller and taller and taller - and then in fall, when most of the rest of the garden is winding down, it explodes into masses of bright yellow flowers.


It is a beautiful sight, and, of course, the wildlife notice and enjoy it as well.

Syrphid fly
The blooms attract bees and other pollinators, and Goldfinches love the seeds produced afterwards.

flight of the bumblebee
The Willowleaf Sunflower was described in one old text as being 'hardy as the common dandelion'.  It tolerates a wide variety of soils (mine is in hard clay) and, like many plants native to the prairie, it is drought tolerant once established.  Last year mine pretty much fended for itself and did fine, though it only grew to about 4 feet tall.  This year my plant benefited from a leak from my drip irrigation for my veggie garden, and it definitely enjoyed the extra water, growing to 6 feet and full of blooms.


As tolerant as it is of different growing conditions, the Willowleaf Sunflower is happiest in full sun and well-drained soil.  In partial shade, the plant will tend to be more open and leggy, with fewer flowers, and will be more likely to flop.  Mine is in a corner that gets some morning shade, and, yep, after a hard rain, part of it flops. 

Interestingly, the part that gets the most shade does the most flopping.
It's not an easy plant to stake gracefully, so to keep it from flopping, some gardeners will pinch it back in early summer, resulting in a shorter, more compact plant (though if height is not wanted, there are now several cultivars that are supposed to stay short, such as 'First Light', 'Table Mountain', and 'Low Down').  Design-wise, the arching branches of the Willowleaf Sunflower are a nice complement to a mixed grass border, even if some of the stems flop.  Or if put in the back of the border, as is often done due to its height, the shorter plants in front would help support it.  The famed gardener Gertrude Jekyll used to plant Willowleaf Sunflower in the back of her border, and then, after her shorter plants in front were done blooming for the summer, she would pin the Sunflower stalks down over them.  This would cause the plant to shoot up flower stalks all along the stem, creating a blanket of yellow blooms in the garden for fall.  


The Willowleaf Sunflower spreads by creeping rhizomes to create a colony.  It is good to divide it every 3 or 4 years to maintain vigor or if one needs to control its spread, as it can sometimes spread quickly when happy in its native range.  It is also easily propagated by division.  

STATS:
Hardiness: zones 4-9
Sun: Full Sun
Height: 6-10 feet
Width: 3 feet
Bloom time: late summer through fall
Soil type: any (tolerates clay!)
Native to central North America
Deer and Rabbit resistant


It is such a striking plant either in a border or as a specimen.  Just like Mr. Thomas McAdams opined over 100 years ago, I certainly don't regret getting this beautiful plant!

Anyone else ever grown it?


26 comments:

  1. Your sunflowers are beautiful.

    False Foxgloves are fading in the meadows here and native Sunflowers replace the pink with brightest yellow masses.

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    1. It is interesting how yellow is often considered the color of spring, but it is also a color of fall. Between the goldenrod and the native perennial sunflowers, there is a lot of yellow going on now in the area around me.

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  2. Yes, I grow this stunning perennial. It tends to be aggressive here, so I contain it in pots. It bloomed early this year for some reason, so doesn't have its usual fall beauty. Enjoyed the information you gave. P. x

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    1. How strange that it bloomed so early. That must be one big pot you have to hold it!

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  3. Yes, that is a lovely flower. And it looks amazing against your red fence! Great pollinator photos, too!

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    1. Thanks! I love hot tones in the garden - so cheery!

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  4. Love, love how you grow this agains the red fencing of your vegetable garden! I think it is much prettier than the traditional sunflower.

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    1. Thanks! The red fence was really begging for something pretty to be grown next to it. I grow annual sunflowers, too, but this one is definitely more graceful and has much prettier foliage!

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  5. Looks a lot like the swamp sunflower that grows here along side the road and in fields. However, ours is a darker yellow. Yours is beautiful.

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    1. We used to have huge masses of swamp sunflower that grew near where I used to live, and I think that might be what I have out in my detention pond. It's nice that you can grow swamp sunflower where it is moist, and willow leaf sunflower where it is dry. A sunflower for all occasions!

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  6. I love sunflowers, though have had trouble growing perennial sunflowers. I've tried Western and Downy sunflower - but they were often too floppy (rich soil) and either very aggressive or in the case of Western sunflower unable to tolerate tough competition. I've never grown Willow Leaf sunflower - it is a beauty in your garden.

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    1. Thanks! So many of those types of plants are used to more harsh conditions and get way too loose or too happy and aggressive in the garden. Even the Willow Leaf Sunflower can do that too in certain areas. I think my hard clay soil is holding it back, though!

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  7. I really like your Helianthus orgyalis, Its only in recent years that this plant has caught my eye, must find a spot in the garden for a form of this beauty.

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    1. I just love this plant, and it is so stunning when it's in all its glory. It makes autumn that much more cheerful when everything else is dying down!

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  8. My mother used to grow something very similar, it was very pretty, but not as gorgeous as yours.

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    1. Thank you! There are several different types of large perennial sunflower, and if I didn't still have the tag I probably would have trouble telling which one this is!

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  9. I adore helianthus and have a few but unsure if this is one....a fabulous specimen I will have to check out!

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    1. It's definitely a great one if you have the space!

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  10. I love the fall native sunflowers. They just gleam in the fall light and provide food for the winter birds. I'm glad you enjoy them too. How interesting about Gertrude Jekyll, but of course she loved the cottage garden look, as do I.

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    1. I never would have thought to do something like that before reading about it. An interesting way to fill in the holes in a border left by fading plants!

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  11. I have trouble telling all the tall yellow wildflowers apart, so thanks for highlighting this particular one, Indie. I like that it blooms in the fall, too--I think I have the perfect spot for this one!

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    1. Some of them do look very much the same! Great if you can fit it in your garden - it's so spectacular in fall.

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  12. I absolutely love sunflowers….but I don’t think I want a perennial one. I am so happy I can just pull them up in November and get rid of the whole thing so easy, they have amazingly small root system for such a big plant. The Willowleaf Sunflower looks very similar to one of those I usually grow, ‘Vanilla Ice’ and it is fabulous, with numerous flowers well into November. I don’t have sunflowers this year as I moved house so I really enjoyed seeing yours, I am already planning where to grow them next year here in my new garden.

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    1. I grew a group of annual sunflowers this year that were somewhat like Vanilla Ice with a beautiful creamy yellow color. Very pretty! I totally understand about you not wanting a giant perennial one. You have an impressive number of plants to pack into your garden as it is!

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  13. They are lovely flowers. Have you ever tried pinning them down?

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    1. No, I just recently read about the pinning technique. My willow leaf sunflower is not really in the right spot for that. I'm thinking of trying it next year with cosmos, though, since my taller cosmos tend to lean down and do that anyway!

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