Here Comes the Sun (and Sunflower Arrangements)

Ryan Gainey reflects on the magic of the sunflower

Some time ago I acquired an armful of store-bought sunflowers. There are some blossoms so beguiling yet tough that not even being harvested, shipped many miles, and dropped into a bucket of water at the grocery store or wholesale flower warehouse can dim their charm. Sunflowers are just such flowers.

sunflower arrangments
The common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is native to North America. Here two dozen common sunflowers are arranged with zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis), a member of the bamboo family, in an antique rattan basket. The arrangement is hung on the door of the 1920s Lord & Burnham greenhouse that came with Gainey’s property. Photo by David Schilling

Their sturdy bright faces inspired me to arrange them in a rustic rattan basket along with Miscanthus sinensis, commonly called zebra grass. Where to hang this basket? Why not on the door of my propagation greenhouse, where they could delight the eye of passersby and brighten the day of those laboring in the greenhouse as well?

sunflower field
Landscape architect Carson McElheney grows rows of sunflowers and other crops alongside a potager garden at his Georgia farm. Photo by Emily Followill

Sunflowers are hardy plants, tough in the field and drought tolerant. Spend any time watching a patch or field of sunflowers and you will see that the bright heads turn their faces throughout the day. They are following Apollo, the sun god, in his golden chariot as he flies across the sky.

Photo by Leisa Cole

In my own garden I grow an old garden variety of sunflower, one I found growing in a ditch in Between, Georgia. I spied it during my travels between Atlanta and Crawford, Georgia. Its self-branching habit and small flowers immediately caught my eye. As the months passed, I watched this patch. When the seeds began to ripen, I stopped and collected as many as my hat would hold. I grew it in my garden, and each year I save the seed. And then each year I have the pleasure of watching the plants climb to a height of seven or eight feet and branch and branch, with each short stem bearing a blossom. I am careful to harvest enough at the end of the season to ensure a crop for the following year. This can be difficult, though, as the birds love the seed as much as I.


sunflower arrangements
In a Southampton house, a rustic bucket holds a towering arrangement of sunflowers, lavender ‘Monte Casino’ asters, delphinium, and hydrangeas. Design by Michael Grim. Photo by Tria Giovan.

By Ryan Gainey

The late garden designer and author, Ryan Gainey wrote a regular column in Flower for many years, sharing his remarkable gardening knowledge and stories for many years.

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