stalking the beloved silver-leaf sunflower, helianthus argophyllus
A MAJESTIC ANNUAL I loved last year and someone I plan to invite back: the silver-leaf sunflower, Helianthus argophyllus, a native American wildflower of great substance and stature. But why is it so hard to track down seeds or plants of this very tall, multi-branching beauty, with its handsome foliage and extra-long bloom season? It’s worth the hunt, which I’ve been doing this week with both your garden and mine in mind.
Gardeners in some areas of Texas where the species is endemic are smiling right now. “I’ve got them all over my backyard,” they are perhaps saying, because the species can be found growing as a self-sowing annual in parts of Florida and North Carolina and Texas, says the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
The H. argophyllus selection I grew in 2012 was a refinement of the straight species called ‘Japanese Silver-Leaf’ (which I expect was so named after being bred in that country, as numerous fine sunflower varieties have been—crossing the genetics of our various U.S. natives). My plants grew from about 5 feet to 7 feet.
Various sources say one should hide its awkward-looking “legs” with some other mid-height annuals and perennials as disguise, and I’d add this, after losing two of my three plants to windstorms: Stake it, for added support to the main stem.
The silver-leaf sunflower is easy to grow from seed, but self-sowns that pop up or seeds direct-sown outside probably wouldn’t start blooming early enough in my relatively short-season climate to give me maximum months of flowering. Sowing indoors in cooler Zones such as this, a month or more ahead of transplant time (which would be at final frost or just after), would give me a jumpstart—except for the difficulty in finding seed. (Important: Start sunflowers, which hate to have their roots disturbed, in 4-inch pots, not little cells, to make for gentler transplanting.)
Because my plants were felled before their time, I didn’t get any harvest last year to save. Nor did the birds, who love this plant the way butterflies do, get their fill.
Have I convinced you to stalk this wild sunflower, too?
where to buy it
- Hallelujah! Annie’s Annuals, from California, is mail-ordering ‘Japanese Silver-Leaf’ plants in 4-inch pots of what she calls her favorite sunflower of all and the longest-bloomer.
- Peace Seedlings uses H. argophyllus in its breeding to cross with H. annuus, and offspring are available in their Supreme Mix. Remember: It’s a mix, and only some of the resulting progeny will resemble the silver-leaf parent, but I bet all will be fun to have around.
- Feeling daring? B&T World Seeds, in France (disclaimer: from whom I have never ordered) sells a packet of what’s labeled H. argophyllus ‘Silver and Gold’ for 8 Euros as well as straight H. argophyllus for 9. (Maybe I’ll harvest and save mine this time and go into silver-leaf sunflower business over here!)
- Wholesaler Landcraft Environments, which sells to special garden centers in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, propagates ‘Japanese Silver-Leaf’ in quart pots. If you’re in those areas, ask your local garden center if they buy from Landcraft (which by the way has an incredible encyclopedia-like website of special plants for the browsing anytime, even if you cannot shop from it retail).