stalking the beloved silver-leaf sunflower, helianthus argophyllus

Helianthus argophyllus sunflower variety 'Japanese Sliver-Leaf'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 was 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 done 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.
    • Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sells seed, thank goodness.
    • 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.
    • 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).
  1. Suellen says:

    That is one very cool sunflower. I like to scatter sunflowers randomly around the garden as long as they are not too thick and in danger of shading something too much. They are so cheery. I used to sell them at the Farmer’s Market and one year a woman asked “Are those real?'” Too funny! I have often wondered what the protocol is for ordering things from a foreign country but have never tried it.


  2. Sandra says:

    I was going to order these from Annie’s Annuals until I got to check out and saw they wanted to charge $25 for shipping 2 plants. Warning to others

  3. Becky says:

    First I saw the photo and thought, “Oh, I’d love those!” Then I started to worry about my position here in 9b, which often precludes me from growing things I love. And then I saw you mention “Florida,” and now all is bright and sunny again! Thanks for introducing this flower to my repertoire. Will have to track the seeds down.

  4. Cairn says:

    I have always thought sunflowers were toxic to other flowers planted close to them. Is this not so? Can you please address sunflower allelopathy myth vs triuth?

  5. Rachel Clark says:

    I grew these sunflowers last summer because I’m lucky enough to live not too far from Annie’s Annuals, the gardener’s dream nursery. For anyone visiting the Bay Area or living within driving distance from Richmond, a trip to Annie’s is a real eye opener. I can’t go there without seeing dozens of plants I’ve never heard of, and picking up more than I can find room to grow. Thank goodness for pots! In the past two months I have taken two of my brothers from out-of-town to Annie’s and watched as they load up their carts while saying, “It’s not as if I live around here and can come back soon!”

    I’ve had no problem with sunflowers proving toxic to other plants.

  6. Teresa Marie says:

    Very pretty. Thank you for sharing. I have never had luck with sunflowers – I think I lack the “sun” part of the equiation. None the less, I started some “regular” sunflowers from seed this year and will try again. If it works, I’ll consider these for next year.

    Teresa Marie

  7. Jason says:

    I have grown two wild sunflowers, western and downy. Both were somewhat disappointing. I was not impressed by the flowers of the downy. Surprisingly, the western did not compete well with my other plants. For a sunflower-like plant, I like to grow cup plant.

  8. june says:

    I gathered up some seed when we were travelling around Corpus Christi and North Padre Island but they never grew well in my climate. Maybe we get too much rain?
    But I did love them and their velvety leaves when they were growing in the roads and fields.

  9. Chris Maciel says:

    I also just tried to buy the plants at Annie’s but could not do the $25. shipping fee.
    First time I’ve run into this problems after years of mail ordering plants. Why is seed not available to us but the plants are? Does anyone have an idea?
    I grew about 40 Sunflowers from seed this year,(about 15 different varieties); just got them in the ground a month ago and some are already blooming. I just can’t resist growing many different varieties in search for the best one, which for me is branching with small flowers all over the plant.. So far the most satisfying has been ‘Vanilla Ice’, a light yellow branching variety. I couldn’t find seed this year but instead am growing ‘Lemon Queen’ and ‘Italian White’. Will report later with photos.

    Thanks for another post with good information.

    1. margaret says:

      Did you try the B&T link above, Chris? I haven’t looked this summer, but that was one place that offered them (not cheap, but once you had it you could save seed — except for the fact of them crossing with others in your collection, which is why Peace Seedlings, also linked above, says they can’t offer pure seed).

  10. Kate says:

    Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sells them! I planted a few two years ago and they have reseeded such that my entire front yard is nothing but these beautiful plants. They are covered with pollinators from the minute they flower to the first frost, but the staking is good advice. Most of mine clear 10 feet. Highly, highly recommend.

  11. Renee says:

    https://fourstringfarm.com/tag/silver-leaf-sunflowers/. This illustrates seed harvesting – the (small) seeds are actually there, at the black center of the sunflower, but you are expecting commercial-size seeds, and these are finch-size seeds! Love ya. Looking forward to growing my packet of silverleaf sunflowers — starting in autumn because we have such a mild winter climate in California — we’ll see how they do on shortening days.

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