Through October, one of the prettiest sites in all of Baton Rouge will be in bloom — an acre of sunflowers at the LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden, 4560 Essen Lane. 

For almost a decade now, rows and rows of sunflowers have been planted in the lush fields just off Interstate 10. It started in 2012 with six rows of test plots of a variety named Mammoth grown by Katie Guitreau, a coordinator at the Botanic Gardens. The gardens staff expanded the next time to two fields with black oil sunflowers from seed, and this got so much attention that they continued to expand.

In 2019, five varieties were trialed at the Botanic Gardens, and visitors voted their favorite as Henry Wilde, a multi-branching sunflower that grows up to 6 feet. They also grew Autumn Beauty, Pygmy, Mammoth and black oil sunflowers.

You couldn't find a more colorful place to take pictures.

The National Garden Bureau has designated 2021 as year of the sunflower.

Native to North America and made popular throughout Europe, sunflowers have a long history. According to the National Sunflower Association, the plant was first cultivated in present-day Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 B.C. Some archaeologists believe the sunflower was domesticated before corn. It was a common crop grown by Native American tribes.

A unique characteristic of sunflowers is that they track the sun, a phenomenon known as heliotropism. The flower heads turn as the sun moves across the sky.

The flowers are said to symbolize optimism, positivity, long life and happiness.

Today, sunflowers are grown as a crop for seed, cooking oil and flour, as well as cut flowers. They can brighten up just about any landscape.

Sunflowers can be either annuals or perennials. The most commonly known types are annual and are single stemmed.

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There also are both pollen and pollen-free varieties. Pollen-free varieties have been bred to be sterile to extend the vase life of the cut flowers and for their clean appearance. They're also good for allergy sufferers. Some pollen-free sunflowers are Moulin Rouge, ProCut series, Sunbuzz, Sunrich series and the Vincent series.

Pollen-producing sunflowers are excellent for those looking to support pollinators such as bees, butterflies, beetles and moths. Some great pollen-producing selections are Soraya, Ring of Fire and Valentine.

Sunflowers also can be grown for edible seeds. Some examples are Feed the Birds, Mongolian Giant, Skyscraper, Super Snack Mix and Titan. Seeds are ready to harvest once the petals have withered and the seeds can be seen.

Tall, single-stemmed sunflowers make the best cut flowers, so look for the ProCut series, Sunrich series and Vincent series.

To extend the life of your cut flowers, cut them in the early morning when the petals just begin to open. Remove the leaves below the water line and place in fresh water. Sunflowers need a great deal of water, so check it regularly and refill as needed. It is best to change water daily.

Branching varieties produce flowers on shorter stem, and include Autumn Beauty Mix, Soraya, SunBuzz, Sunfinity, SunBelievable and Suncredible, a Louisiana Super Plant for 2021.

Suncredible is an annual, ever-blooming, branched sunflower with a bush-like habit. It grows up to 4 feet with a spread of 2 feet. Blooms are up to 4 inches across and do not require deadheading. This sunflower blooms for weeks, makes a great cut flower and the pollinators love it, especially the bees and butterflies. It adds a perfect pop of yellow to your fall garden.

Suncredible grows best in full sun and can tolerate a range of soils. It is drought and heat tolerant once established. It has no real disease or pest issues, and can be planted in both the landscape and containers. To encourage vigorous growth, use a controlled-release fertilizer at the time of planting and again in late summer or early fall. A mass planting makes a great focal point in the garden.

Sunflowers can be easily grown from seed. You can directly sow seeds after the danger of the last frost has passed, or you can find some varieties at independent garden centers in the late spring to early summer. Sunflowers can still be transplanted this fall for more fall color.

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