What should I say when somebody tells me my dog is cute? "Thank you" is probably the right response, but why? I had absolutely nothing to do with my dog's cuteness.
I feel the same way about swamp sunflower, which right now is getting all the attention in my garden. It is, bar none, the most spectacular plant in town right now. But I take no credit for it whatsoever.
For those of us in the Southeast, swamp sunflower (zones 6-9) may just be the perfect plant. It's beautiful, it's low maintenance, and it's pretty much disease-free. Plant it in full sun, give it decent soil, and make sure it gets some water during dry spells, and you'll look like a pro. Put it in a soggy spot, and you'll look like a genius.
There are several perennial sunflowers out there, all going by the Latin name Helianthus something-or-other and differing mainly in height, bloom time, and soil preference. The plant that is currently signaling ships in my garden is a late-blooming variety native to the Southeast. Since my original clump was a freebie from my neighbor's garden, it took a bit of detective work to figure out exactly what variety it was. Finally, I determined that it is identical to the one Niche Gardens sells as Helianthus simulans - useful information if you actually plan to purchase it, rather than ogle it in your neighbor's yard and hope he'll get the hint.
Perhaps swamp sunflower would be less eye-catching if it flowered in the summer, when there is a lot more competition in the bloom department. But here in Cary, it starts flowering in early October and continues through a good portion of the month. Yes, chrysanthemums and asters are everywhere, and plenty of summer-blooming plants are getting their last words in. But nothing else is screaming yellow and seven feet tall.
Clearly, this is not a plant for the shy and retiring. And if seven feet seems gargantuan, consider this: I generally cut mine back by 1/3 in late June to keep the height under control. Yes, seven feet tall is "under control" - they can reach ten feet if you do nothing. Like chrysanthemums and asters, swamp sunflowers should be cut back by July 4th (a date gardeners use because it's easy to remember); any later, and they won't have time to form buds and bloom before the first frost.
If this plant has any drawback, it is that those seven-foot stalks never stay up in the wind or the rain. Generally I like the sprawling, natural look, but even I find swamp sunflower quite disheartening in a horizontal state - after all, its dramatic height is the whole point. I've learned my lesson and now I stake it, using a galloping horse version of the cat's cradle that involves five foot tall tomato stakes and green garden twine. It's not pretty, but it works, and it's virtually invisible when the flowering begins.
And what flowering it is. Amazingly, swamp sunflower looks great with almost everything in bloom right now - Mexican bush sage, asters, ornamental grasses, you name it. You can plunk it practically anywhere and voilà - a great plant combo is born. For Southeastern gardeners, it just doesn't get much better than this.
10/10/2012 01:44:16 am
Some of my neighbors have this flower and I've always wondered what it is. Now I know! It is spectacular.
They are beautiful! We have a bunch near the greenway here that are spectacular in the fall. I recently went to a garden that had a clump of swamp sunflowers right next to an arbor - they were as tall as the arbor, and definitely stood out with that screaming yellow color!
10/13/2012 02:37:13 am
Hi Indie. Thanks for the compliment. I'm enjoying your blog, too! Note to other readers: Indie's blog is at www.redhousegarden.com. Check it out!
10/14/2012 12:21:58 pm
Your helianthus are awesome! I love how tall they are. :) I love your method of staking them. I may try that on a few plants next summer.
10/15/2012 01:08:36 am
You can also try the cat's cradle staking method on smaller floppers like peonies. Your blog is terrific! It sounds as if the issues you deal with in the Washington DC area are similar to the ones I face in Cary, NC. Except my dog isn't interested in the garden - he likes air conditioning too much.
10/15/2012 04:07:01 am
It's so true! I admire your energy and talent in tackling your "3 Acre Farm" in cold, cold Maine (http://a3acrefarm.com). Your produce is gorgeous! How do you do that? I am in awe.
10/7/2013 08:24:12 pm
I have swamp sunflowers and I have been giving them to people because they multiply so quickly and they all love them they are so gorgeous. I have found that I have to Divide them quite often because they multiply so quickly I have them all over my yard.
10/8/2013 01:50:31 am
Thanks for the visit, Pamela. Glad you love the swamp sunflowers as much as I do. Mine also multiply like mad - I have three big stands now, all from one itty bitty plant years ago. Plus I've given it away to neighbors. So it's beautiful AND economical!
4/2/2014 06:36:03 am
I am trying to find the swamp flowers but there isn't any to be found
4/2/2014 10:18:01 am
You may have to resort to mail order. I know that Niche Gardens sells Helianthus simulans, which I believe is the species I have. The web address is www.Nichegardens.com. Good luck!
10/28/2018 12:47:09 pm
do you sell plants of swamp sunflower?
10/28/2018 01:21:59 pm
Hi Maria. I'm just a regular amateur gardener, so no, I don't sell plants. You could try Niche Gardens in North Carolina - they are mail order and they usually carry the plant. Good luck.
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The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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