Photo | Swamp sunflowers by Melissa Wold
By Melissa Wold, Mobile County Master Gardener / MobileCountyMasterGardeners.org
In late summer or early fall, you may spot a glimmer of yellow against a sky-blue backdrop. Stems hum in the soft breeze. You round the corner to see golden-yellow flowers waterfall over the fence. You stop and take in the simple beauty of the swamp sunflower.
Helianthus angustifolius is commonly known as the narrow-leaf sunflower or swamp sunflower. This perennial species is native to the Southeast and coastal areas as far north as New York. Because of its tolerance of salt and love of water, it thrives in bogs, wetlands and swamps.
The flowers are smaller than the annual sunflower, but it has a much longer blooming season. Its golden-yellow blooms regale you late summer through fall. The blooms are like a daisy, measure two to three inches wide and have yellow-black eyes. The leaves are dark green with a rough, burgundy stalk. It may grow as tall as 10 feet, but its height can be controlled.
Marion Deane Drummond, the executive director of Mobile Botanical Gardens from 2002-09, shared her gardening wisdom on swamp sunflowers with Nita Crandall. Nita says Marion was adamant that on the Fourth of July, before a firecracker was lit or a bottle rocket launched, you were to cut back your “swamps” to knee height. This stunts them from growing into the heavens. I choose to ignore this advice, but at times have had my swamps fall victim to being too tall. The heaviness of the blooms may cause the stalks to fall. But even if that happens, it is a beautiful sight to see those abundant yellow blooms sprawled across the yard.
Swamp sunflowers can be used in a variety of ways in your garden. Plant them in the back of a mixed perennial bed. Add them to a wildflower or bog garden. To prevent their wandering — and they do love to wander — mow around the edges of the bed.
In non-blooming periods, the plant itself is nothing to shout about. For most of the year, it is straggly. Placing it in beds with companion plants with different bloom times will camouflage it during its ugly duckling stage. But when the swamp blooms, it is swan time.
Swamps prefer moist to wet soil and full sun to partial shade. Sun and water are its best friends. If grown in shady areas, its flowers are less prevalent and the stalks are weaker. Don’t despair if your garden is on the dry side. Swamps can still be grown, but they will require frequent watering by hand.
As with all sunflowers, swamps propagate through seed. They are extremely social and love to self-propagate through wind and birds. If you plant swamps, place them 12 to 18 inches apart. You only need to plant a small number, as they quickly multiply. If the plants become too dense, you will need to thin them out and share them with other sunflower lovers. The plants will die back in the winter when it is best to cut the stalks back to six inches. Bees, butterflies and birds are attracted to swamps and they are also resistant to deer.
The first year of having swamps in my yard, I would daily check for blooms and leave disappointed. One day, I heard a bird singing, looked and saw my swamps full bloom five feet above my head. So, if you don’t cut back your swamps, you will have to look skyward.
Sunflowers make beautiful arrangements even in a simple mason jar. Just ask Monet or Van Gogh. Cutting the flowers and dead-heading increases the blooms.
I am a sunflower enthusiast. I love all varieties of helianthus but swamps are my favorite. Like them, I am happiest with my feet in water and my face toward the sun.
Visit a Garden in Mobile:
What: Charles Wood Japanese Garden (walking trail #1)
When: Daylight hours, no fee
Where: 700 Forest Hill Drive, Mobile
For more info: mobilejapanesegarden.com
What: Mobile Botanical Gardens, now open
When: Wednesday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., by appointment
Where: 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
For more info: mbgrebloomshop.com
What: Bellingrath Gardens, now open
When: Daily, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Where: 12401 Bellingrath Gardens Road, Theodore
For more info: bellingrath.org
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