'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.'
'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.
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.
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?