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For centuries gardeners have favored sunflowers

Thousands of years ago, American Indian women grew tired of traipsing off across the countryside to gather sunflower seed. Women coveted the seed because it provided so many uses for the family. The kernel could be made into flour and the extracted oil made black hair shiny. Even the shells yielded a useful purple dye for hides, body and basket.

Eons ago, perhaps one woman noticed that seeds beside her grinding stones sprouted and grew into full-grown plants. It flowered and produced seed right there at her fingertips. The next year she scattered a few more seeds and these too grew to supply her needs. It was not long until the tribes were planting the wild sunflower in the moist river-bottom silt of the Missouri River after the spring high water receded. Naturally, they saved the seed of those plants that yielded the largest seed-filled flowers.

By the time Europeans entered this established agricultural world, American Indians had physically changed the wild sunflower. Through human selection, the flower size grew and the many-branched plant produced just one monstrous seed head. American Indians had succeeded in changing the native flora of North America, yielding a very different plant than its wild ancestor.

In the 20th century, modern breeding techniques were unleashed upon the American sunflower. The old strains exploded into dozens of new varieties. These expanded the flower color from the familiar golden daisy to a vast array of hues from deep burgundy to fiery orange.

Sunflowers have remained a garden favorite since pioneer times because they are affordable. No other plant gives so much visual change for just pennies. Their rapid growth and disease resistance have made them a favorite with children, who delight in watching their faces follow the sun across the summer sky. And kids naturally love to harvest the seed, too.

When times grow hard and money is tight, we find ourselves going back to many of the old ways of Depression gardeners. These folks loved their sunflowers and grew them every year. As the buds follow the sun across the sky, even the young plants have personality. If seeds are not harvested for winter snacks, birds flock to the flowers to feed on them. This in turn keeps avian friends in the garden as a natural pest control; they devour unwanted insects that feed on crops stressed by the heat.

Mammoth sunflowers are the seed lovers’ choice. They feature a single large flower on top of a stalk that can reach 15 feet in height at maturity. These plants have been dwarfed to produce the 4-foot “Sunny” and even the 2-foot “Sunspot,” both of which bear large wide-center flowers. The dwarf mammoths are exceptional for smaller gardens. The seed is available by mail at Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co. (http://www.gurneys.com).

For a fabulous show of color, plant the florist varieties, which produce a huge range of color and flower detailing on smaller, more manageable plants. For just a few dollars you can fill the whole garden with them. These are the renter’s secret weapon for a fabulous seasonal show.

You can buy standard mixed-color seed packets that produce plenty of range, but you don’t know what’s coming until the buds open. Gurney’s offers a great sunflower deal that combines four potent-colored varieties of 5-inch-wide flowers in reds, oranges and yellow. Each is separately packaged so you can create more-controlled color drifts.

We often go looking far afield for new plants, because these are so widely advertised in magazines and catalogs and on the Internet. But everyone’s grandmother knows there’s no need to pay big bucks for a great garden. Even during hard times when there was not a penny to spare, she gathered her flower seed to save for next year.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of “Weekend Gardening” on DIY Network. Contact her at her Web site www.moplants.com or visit www.diynetwork.com.

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