Wild Sunflowers 101 – What, Why, and How To GROW!


Hello! You have found our illustrated guide on growing and caring for Wild Sunflowers!  We love all sunflowers here but the original Native species is by far our favorite.  This is the original sunflower that graced the North American landscape for millennia and was domesticated about 1000 years ago by Native Americans.  It is the plant that all of the other iconic annual sunflowers come from.

Before we go further, I’ve organized this article into the following topics. If you are looking for a quick reference, you can just click on the jump-link to go to that section.

What is Wild Sunflower

Wild Sunflower, is a showy multi-bloomed and branching that typically grows 6′ tall (2 m) and has a peak blooming period of one month in full sun with well drained soil. Scientifically known as Helianthus annus, it is an important pollinator plant, that attractsof bees, butterflies, and birds from mid-Summer to Fall.

Wild Sunflower Reference Table

Scientific NameHelianthus Annus
Common NamesWild Sunflower, Wild Yellow Sunflower, Common Sunflower, Native Sunflower, Wild Native Sunflower
Height3-9′ (1-3 m)
Spacing1-3′ (30 cm – 100 cm)
SunlightFull sun
Soil TypeClay, loam, sand
Soil MoistureSlightly moist to slightly dry (is partially drought tolerant)
Bloom Time & DurationLate Summer, 4-week super bloom. Sporadic continuous blooming until Autumn
Bloom ColorYellow
Larval HostNone, but several caterpillars feed on foliage
Native RangeNorth America
ZoneNot Hardy. Annual Flower
Notes:Attracts bees, butterflies, and birds

Wild Sunflower Benefts

Wild Sunflower has many benefits. In addition to providing a super-bloom of yellow flowers that lasts a month, it also feeds dozens of beneficial insects. Butterflies are also attracted to Wild Sunflower. Finally, Wild Sunflower is the best plant to attract birds to your yard!

The showiest of sunflowers

Each Wild Sunflower plant will 5-50 blooms that occur over a 3-4 week period. So, it provides lots of great color for a much longer time than other Sunflower varieties such as Mammoth and American Giant. 

While Mammoth can be a great sunflower with a single, HUGE bloom it only lasts for about a week before it begins to wilt.  All that growth for only a week’s worth of bloom.

Wild Sunflower attracts tons of bees

If you want to attract bees, then you need to grow Wild Sunflower. Over 15 species of bees have been documented to pollinate Wild Sunflower. Long-tongued bees like mason, digger, leaf-cutter, and bumble bees are the most important. But honey bees and smaller bees also play a roll.

A field of Wild Sunflower can seem like a different kind of goldmine for a beekeeper!

Other Beneficial Insects love Wild Sunflower

In addition to bees, did you know that skippers and butterflies also visit Wild Sunflower? Also, there are over 80 species of other native insects that have been documented to feed on some part of the plant. [2]

I can often see insect damage on some of the yellow petals. But, this does not make me unhappy. I know that by growing Wild Sunflower I’m feeding beneficial insects that are all part of our fragile ecosystem.

Wild Sunflower attracts birds

A true bird magnet, Wild Sunflower will bring in tons of birds! I regularly see the plants swaying under the weight of a finch or sparrow. Songbirds truly love to eat the seeds. Below are a few pictures I snapped of finches going to town eating the seed!

Wild Sunflower vs Sunflower

The main difference between Wild Sunflower vs Sunflower is the number of blooms and size of the blooms. Wild Sunflower will produce dozens of blooms, 2-5″ diameter while normal Sunflower will produce a single, huge 10-12″ bloom. Also, Wild Sunflower will branch frequently while regular sunflower will just have a single stalk.

While they are very similar in genetics, there are a number of differences between Wild Sunflower and more commonly cultivated sunflowers. I’ve listed them in the table below:

Wild SunflowerSunflower
Image
Height3-10′8-12′
Spread3′2′
Bloom Size2″-5″10″-12″
No. Blooms5-501
Blooming Season4 weeks, mid-Summer1 week, mid-Summer

Wild Sunflower vs Black Eyed Susan

Both Black Eyed Susan and Wild Sunflower have yellow daisy-like flowers with black centers. And certain species of Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) bloom at the same time as Wild Sunflower, but that is where the similarities stop.

There are many differences between Black Eyed Susan and Wild Sunflower. The blooms of Black Eyed Susan, or just about any member of the Rudbeckia genus are quite small, 1-3″ diameter. While Wild Sunflower blooms are generally 4-6″ diameter.

Additionally, Black Eyed Susan plants are shorter, only reaching 2-4′ tall. And Wild Sunflower plants are typically 4-8′ tall. The width of Black Eyed Susan is only 1-2′, while a fully branched Wild Sunflower can be 5′ wide.

Wild Sunflower Identification

Wild Sunflowers will grow 3-10′ tall depending on sunlight and growing conditions/moisture. They are also wide plants as they branch many times up the stalk.

Wild Sunflower Stalk

The Stalk of Wild Sunflower is hairy and green/red in color. It will be stiff and erect, with frequent branching.

Wild Sunflower Leaf Identification

Leaves of Wild Sunflower are 4″-8″ long, by nearly as wide at the base. The leaf is lanceolate to ovate in shape, or tear-drop shaped. It will be veined with serrated or saw-tooth edges.

Wild Sunflower Bloom

The Bloom of Wild Sunflower is daisy like in appearance with 15-40 yellow petals and 3-5″ diameter. Although, you can find larger or smaller blooms as the amount of genetic variation is vast with this species. Each plant should produce 5-30 blooms, with the showy blooming period lasting one month beginning in mid-Summer. And sporadic blooms will continue until a hard frost.

Flower period of Wild Sunflower lasts about a week or two per bloom, and then the petals will droop and fall off. Seed production begins and takes approximately one month. You will know when seeds are ready as the finches will begin feeding on them as soon as they are palatable.

Wild Sunflower Growing Conditions and Care

Sunlight Requirements of Wild Sunflower

Wild Sunflower prefers full sun (6+ hours of direct sunlight per day). But it can tolerate partial shade (4-6 hours). Although in partial shade, the plant will not be as large or showy.

Soil Requirements of Wild Sunflower

The preference is fertile loam [1]. However, Wild Sunflower can grow just fine in clay, rocky, or sandy loam.

For moisture, Wild Sunflower is adaptable in that it can grow in slightly moist to slightly dry conditions. Just make sure the soil drains well.

Wild Sunflower Problems

Wild Sunflower leaves turning yellow

The lower leaves of Wild Sunflower can turn yellow and droop or fall off. This is normal if the plant has been through a drought.

If all the leaves are turning yellow, it is often a sign of over-watering or a general nutrient deficiency. To address the watering, either stop watering or test your soil drainage rate. To address the nutrient deficiency, top-dress the plant with compost.

Powdery Mildew on Wild Sunflower

One disease that can effect Wild Sunflower late in the season is Powdery Mildew. The symptom you will notice is a white, powdery look to the leaves. Powdery Mildew is mainly a cosmetic disease, and will not harm the plant. Also, it tends to occur late in the season after the plant is beyond the ‘super bloom’.

Deer, Rabbits, and Wild Sunflower

Sunflowers will be browsed by both deer and rabbits. Rabbits will eat young seedlings. Deer will eat them almost any time. 

I’ve had deer completely defoliate and even eat the stem of tall sunflower plants prior to blooming.  I was amazed, these plants were already 5′ tall and the deer came right up for their midnight snack!  So you may want to invest in Liquid Fence.  It is the easiest method I’ve found to keep rabbits and deer away without harming the animals.

deer damage sunflowers
Examples of deer eating my sunflowers. 🙁  These were about 5′ tall when the deer decided to have a late night snack!

How to keep sunflowers from tipping over

Also, and I’ve found this to be very important over the years…. Plant Sunflowers out in the open! These are prairie plants, and they love wide open spaces.

By having access to sunlight from any direction, and wind from any direction, the stalk is strengthened against high winds. I’ve seen this countless times in my yard – the sunflowers that are most exposed to the elements are the strongest and least-likely to be damaged by storms/wind.

Sunflowers that are planted along a house or where they are partially shaded will be knocked over by high winds. While my other sunflowers in the open will stand strong!

Do Wild Sunflowers need fertilizer?

Native sunflowers generally don’t need fertilizer.  In fact I’ve never fertilized mine except by mixing in some compost when I plant seeds or transplant seedlings. 

Now, if you are going to try to win an award for your blooms, then by all means go ahead and fertilize.  But it shouldn’t be seen as necessary for a healthy plant.  Too much synthetic fertilizer can actually make the plant leggy and more susceptible to being knocked over by wind.

How to Grow Wild Sunflower from Seed

Wild Sunflower is very easy to grow from seed via direct sowing or in pots. It is one of the easier plants to grow from seed, as there are no special treatments required for germination.

When you should start Sunflower Seeds

Starting Sunflower seeds of any kind (including Wild Sunflower) should be started in late Spring. Wild Sunflower seeds will not germinate in soil that is less than 50F.

To grow Wild Sunflower seed in pots

  1. Fill a container with moist potting soil. The container should be 4″ wide by 4″ deep. Leave a gap of 1/4-1/2″ at the top (6-12 mm)
  2. Place several Wild Sunflower seeds 1/16″-1/8″ deep (2-3 mm)
  3. Cover the seed and gently tamp the soil
  4. Place somewhere that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. East facing window sills or the East side of a house are good locations.
  5. Keep the soil moist
  6. Germination should within in 1-3 weeks

After a few weeks, the seedlings should have developed their 1st set of true leaves. At this time they can be transplanted our to their final location.

Wild Sunflower Seedling

To direct Sow Wild Sunflower Seed

  1. In late Spring, once soil temperatures have reached 45 F (after your first lawn mowing), prepare an area for planting. Remove the grass, or turn the soil.
  2. Plant seeds about 1/8″ deep (3 mm)
  3. Plant 2-3 seeds, and cover with dirt.
  4. Water the seeds, and make sure the soil stays moist.
  5. Germination should occur within 3 weeks
  6. Optional – you may wish to cover the area with chicken wire to prevent squirrels from digging up the seed

 Where to buy Wild Sunflower seed?

Native Wild Sunflower seed is generally quite cheap, only costing a few dollars for a packet. We have a listing for our favorite seed supplier at our recommended products page. Just click on the image below!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is recommended-products-150x150.jpg

Protect Wild Sunflower Seedlings!

Wild Sunflower seedlings happen to be favorite food of both deer and rabbits. I’ve even had squirrels dig up plants that had just germinated to eat the seeds. So, protect your seedlings with Liquid Fence or cages!

Liquid fence is also shown in our recommended products page. It is really a great product.

How to harvest Wild Sunflower seed

The seed of Wild Sunflower is quite different and smaller from the sunflower seed you buy to eat, or the giant Mammoth sunflower seed. So, it can be difficult to even know what the seed looks like, let alone harvest it!

Wild Sunflower Seed – this is what it looks like

But the first thing you need to know about harvesting Wild Sunflower seed, is that you must be quick! Goldfinches and squirrels will devour the seed as soon as it is ready. Now, this does not mean that you won’t get seed if you wait, but it will be much harder.

The best way to harvest Wild Sunflower seed

Ok, so this is the absolute best method for harvesting the Wild Sunflower seed. But, you need to purchase some seed collecting bags. We have them linked at our Recommended Products page.

A Wild Sunflower seed head in the mesh bag. Note all the seed that has naturally fallen to the bottom.

These are basically mesh bags with a drawstring. They are excellent for collecting seed from a bloom as the bag prevents birds from getting the seed. To use them, just place the bag over a seed head once the petals have faded (that means the flower is pollinated). Then, tie off the string. Return a month later, and voila! Lots of seed in a bag.

Harvesting Wild Sunflower seed by general seed head collection

If you don’t have bags, don’t worry. You can still get seeds from the heads, as the finches always leave a few behind. Just collect the seed heads once they turn brown and dry out. Take these home, and let them dry out in a garage or other cool, dry place for another week.

Then, while holding the seed head over a paper plate, rake your hand over the face of the seed head. Even smack the seed head around a bit – anything to jostle the remaining seed.

Separating Wild Sunflower seed from the chaff

Pile up your mixture of seed/chaff on the paper plate. Then, raise the plate near your face and gently blow on the plate. The large sunflower seeds will stay on the plate, while the chaff will blow away.

The chaff separation in action! Note the mess just beyond the plate, and all the heavy seeds at the bottom of the plate. This method really works.

You can do this outside, but I prefer indoors. At least where I live, strong winds an easily blow the seed of the plate as well. So, do it indoors, or outside on a quiet day.

Wild Sunflower Uses

Garden Uses of Wild Sunflower

Despite their large size, Wild Sunflowers are quite versatile in garden settings. They can look great as a focal point or single specimen. Alternatively, it only takes 3-4 plants to put on a showy yellow display that just cannot be matched by other ornamental flowers.

But, if you have border gardens, ditches, prairies, meadows – then Wild Sunflower would obviously be right at home in any of those settings!

Is Wild Sunflower Invasive?

Wild Sunflower can be considered invasive in a highly disturbed soil area. In fact, the state of Iowa lists Wild Sunflower as a noxious weed – which is strange as the plant is native to the state!

But, it is shown that Wild Sunflower will release chemicals via its roots to inhibit the growth and germination of other plants. [3] So, at a minimum, Wild Sunflower has invasive tendencies.

Wild Sunflower Edible Parts

The seeds of Wild Sunflower are edible, fresh, raw or cooked. They have a high fat content, which makes it understandable why Native Americans liked this plant so much.

The petioles (leaf stems) can be boiled and eaten with other vegetables. Buds of flowers can be steamed similar to artichokes. Wild Sunflower roots can be made into a tea.

Native American Uses of Wild Sunflower

Wild Sunflower, Helianthus Annus was used heavily by Native Americans. There are over 80 uses by 25 tribes documented from medicine to food. [4] With food being the primary use – the seeds were highly valued and prized. Some of the uses include the following:

  • Seeds used as food, flour
  • Oil from seed used as skin oil for body paint
  • Petals used as a yellow dye
  • Juice applied to lacerations and abrasions
  • Seeds pounded into a flour/meal and eaten, baked as cakes, or made into bread
  • Stalk could be made into a flute or whistle
  • The stalks could be fashioned into bird snares, as they are quite ‘springy’
  • Used as a pediatric aid, disinfectant, or dermatological aid

Do sunflowers spread?

native sunflowers

An individual sunflower plant will not spread by itself, as it is an annual.  That means that the plant will die after blooming and when there is a hard frost. 

But they will self seed for the following year.  The first year I built my vegetable garden I planted two native Wild Sunflowers.  The following year I had around 10 ‘volunteer’ sunflowers.  Depending on conditions and how disturbed the soil is (which my garden was obviously ‘disturbed’), a single plant can make many volunteers the following year.

The state of Iowa has listed the common sunflower as a noxious weed and it is illegal to plant or sell seed there.  Now that makes absolutely no sense to me – how state can make a native plant illegal!  I mean, the sunflower was there for hundreds/thousands of years, and is well suited to the environment and helps the ecosystem.  Why outlaw a native plant????

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References

[1] – HAKOOMAT ALI, SHAKEEL AHMAD RANDHAWA AND MUHAMMAD YOUSAF, Quantitative and Qualitative Traits of Sunflower (Helianthus annus L.) as Influenced by Planting Dates and Nitrogen Application, INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGRICULTURE & BIOLOGY, 1560–8530/2004/06–2–410–412 .

[2] – https://illinoiswildflowers.info/prairie/tablex/table1.html

[3] – J. Kamal, A. Bano, Allelopathic potential of sunflower (Helianthus annus L.) on soil metals and its leaves extracts on physiology of wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) seedlings. African Journal of Biotechnology, Volume 7, No. 18 (2008). eISSN: 1684-5315

[4] – Native American Ethnobotany, Helianthus annus, retrieved 05MAR2021.

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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