Sunflowers are the garden’s late-summer stars

  • Sunflowers are members of the composite family, which has more than 30,000 species of plants, including asters and zinnias. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

By Adrian Higgins The Washington Post

At the start of summer, I thought I would put aside my disdain for amaranth and grow some so I might change my view.

The amaranth spurned me. The tiny black seeds germinated in their pots, but never seemed to develop. I started them too late.

I consoled myself by planting other heat-loving annuals: tithonias, zinnias and good old sunflowers. All are part of the vast flower tribe known as composites. These daisies form the largest family of flowering plants, containing as many as 32,000 species.

Botanists call the composite family Asteraceae. No single species projects its bold iconography more than the annual sunflower.

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei explored the impact of numbers in his 2010 installation, “Sunflower Seeds,” at Tate Modern in London, when the floor of Turbine Hall was filled with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, handmade by 1,600 Chinese artisans.

The work could be read as the subordination of the individual, but the gardener takes the reverse view, knowing each seed in a plant is genetically unique and capable of making a whole new plant.

The big sunflower varieties are too primal for my taste, but the smaller ones still tower over the late-summer garden in the face of the heat and humidity. My preferred varieties of sunflower include Italian White, actually a lemon yellow, or Buttercream, primrose yellow, or other 3- to 4-foot varieties with multiple flowers and lots of branching. Red-flowering sunflowers now abound, including Moulin Rouge, Chocolate and Autumn Beauty.

The tithonia, or Mexican sunflower, is a tall but self-supporting annual with velvety gray-green leaves with orange daisies.

I planted three potted plants in June. Set in a triangular pattern about 12 inches apart, the three now form a single stand, 7 feet high, 5 feet across, and covered in blooms and butterflies. It will provide a show until October.

The daisy archetype is a central disk of florets surrounded by a ruff of petals.

In some, the family resemblance is obvious. Some members of the clan are not so obvious. Lettuces are related to sunflowers, though so few of us see them in flower when they are inedible. The thistles of Scotland are composites, and the edelweiss of Alpine lands. Ragweed, whose pollen is clogging my sinuses, is one of them. Another is the dandelion. In Europe, common ragwort, a pretty cluster of yellow daisies, is toxic to livestock.

Garden composites are some of my favorite plants.

I like that what appears to be one bloom is in fact a cluster of florets, awaiting bees.

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