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Look closely -- it’s not just another pretty face

Time Staff Writer

SUNFLOWERS are the true American beauty. They have it all: stamina, fast growth, architecture, fecundity, attitude and, above all, color. The proportions twixt stem and head are so sweetly comical that all it takes is the sight of a sunflower display at Trader Joe’s to defuse the rage that brews daily in its parking lots.

In the wild, sunflowers are so stunning that driving down the 110 past Dodger Stadium, it is hard not to crash as one catches sight of a freeway verge studded with gold. As L.A.'s hillsides turn brown in late summer heat, somehow wild sunflowers still glow from the brush.

Even at 70 mph, the difference between the freeway sunflower and the Trader Joe’s flower is clear. The Trader Joe’s flowers -- i.e., the commercially cultivated ones -- are large, often single-headed, with stems as thick as some tree branches.

By contrast, the freeway flowers are smaller, elegantly branched, with each of those limbs producing radiant blooms clear through autumn without so much as a spritz from a hose.

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Sunflowers have such renegade glee that it seems incredible that the flowers at Trader Joe’s should be from the same family, never mind from the same genus or species. But they are. Both are Helianthus annuus. Dividing the supermarket and wild flower are at best a few miles -- and more than 4,000 years of domestication by humans, the last five centuries in the hands of European breeders.

For gardeners, choosing between the two poses a poignant challenge. Are we capable of appreciating the potential of our native flora for home gardens? Or, as we take ever more land for housing, will we only admit nursery standards that have been treated to extreme makeovers? Whichever way we do it, how do we capture the plant’s almost magical ability to produce autumn gold?

The sunflower sold at Trader Joe’s has had so much work done that it can and does pass as European. For many, it evokes Russia, for others France. Don’t be fooled. Samovars are Russian, Brie is French, sunflowers are American.

SEEDS snatched by colonists in the earliest expeditions to North America and Mexico were quickly propagated back in Europe and Russia and turned into an oilseed business.

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What set sunflowers apart from the other cash crops whisked out of the Americas was their high, happy beauty. No other plant slipped quite so easily between crop and ornament. When Van Gogh wanted to dazzle his pal Gauguin, he didn’t choose corn, tomatoes or peppers to paint, he selected sunflowers. When he set out to paint those sunflowers, he didn’t do it once but on canvas after canvas.

It is the architecture of the sunflower that has made it so attractive to farmers and artists alike. In the center of it, where normally one would find pistils and stamens, there is a collection of as many as 750 individual flowers on a single head. Each of these is called a disc floret.

This center mass is often -- but not always -- encircled by a bonnet of what look like petals but are in fact ray florets. The high-density arrangement earned not just the sunflower but also its wider family the name “composites,” or “comps,” to the botanical in crowd.

For the sunflower farmer, the structure translates as yield. One head of a ‘Russian Giant’ can easily yield hundreds of oil-rich seeds. For breeders in the ornamental trade, selection and propagation of freak flowers have turned the sunflower seed business into a novelty market.

Left to their own devices, sunflowers are capable of coming in shades from crimson to the trademark Van Gogh yellow. Yet in the wild, says taxonomist Dieter Wilken of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, the yellow predominates. Among floral yellows, Helianthus yellow is so intensely saturated that it’s a hard color to pull off if you’re not a sunflower -- or a school bus.

Van Gogh only captured its brilliance because a revolution in paint chemistry had just produced chrome yellow. Incas hammered likenesses of sunflowers in gold. All very impressive, until one considers that the plant produces the radiance with little more than air, water, dirt and sunshine.

Ask professor John K. Fellman, a plant chemist at Washington State University at Pullman how the plant bottles sunshine, and he will tell you about genetic switches and metabolic pathways that during photosynthesis allow plants to create compounds responsible for color. In the case of yellow, carotenoids get most of the credit.

But the bottom line, says Fellman, is we still don’t know exactly how the sunflower performs its alchemy.

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THERE is more certainty about why yellow dominates the sunflower family. Bees and butterflies are drawn to it. “It’s a way of making plants have sex,” says Curtis Clark, a botanist at Cal Poly Pomona. Pollinators are drawn to it. The more pollinators, the more fertilized flowers; the more fertilized flowers, the more seeds; the more seeds, the more plants.

What impresses Fellman most about the sunflower is how tall it can grow in a single season. Choose the right cultivar, and a commercial sunflower can outgrow a Laker. The plants are studies in energy, with a scant year to germinate, soar above other annuals competing for sun and water, then blossom, attract a pollinator, set seed and drop that seed before they die.

Yet in the wild, the way that sunflowers marshal their energy is even more impressive. Somehow from autumn germination to late summer flowering, the plant’s roots go deep enough that it has the reserves to bloom straight through September, then to set and ripen seed before dying.

While they don’t hit 15 feet tall, (5 is more like it), long after hose-fed agricultural cultivars have produced at best two or three flower heads in July and early August, the wild plant flowers repeatedly through September. Bart O’Brien, director of horticulture at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont, says: “It’s amazing to think that these plants are annuals. How do they do this when everything is dry? They are incredibly efficient and well-adapted plants.”

If O’Brien and Clark don’t know how the sunflowers hang on so late in the season, they are pretty sure as to why they do it.

“There’s no competition for pollinators,” says O’Brien. Clark adds that the seeds stay safe. “If a plant flowers in the spring,” says Clark, “then its seeds are sitting on the ground all summer with all sorts of time for mice to come along and eat them.” Seeds dropped in the autumn have only weeks to wait for the first rains and a shot at life.

Few seeds have such devoted gleaners. Just as sunflowers aren’t quite flowers, their seeds aren’t quite seeds, but achenes, a Latin-based term for a single, uncased fruit. Whereas many plants store starch and sugar in their seeds to nourish the seedling during germination, the achenes of sunflowers store oil. Appreciation for that oil is as old as farming. By the time that the colonists got here, the indigenous peoples of the eastern United States and southeast Mexico were not only growing and eating sunflowers, but they also were handing them out to intrigued visitors.

NOT long ago, it became a point of contention as to who domesticated it first, native Americans in what is now the northeastern United States or residents around Tabasco in southeast Mexico. Given Mexico’s supremacy with tomatoes, peppers and corn, it looked like a clean sweep for the Aztecs.

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However, using molecular science to poke around at the genes of Helianthus annuus, evolutionary biologist Loren Rieseberg from the University of British Columbia recently settled the argument in favor of the eastern U.S. His hope is that North American farmers will seize on the import of the finding and switch from water-hungry corn to the better-adapted native sunflower.

Farmers who do grow sunflowers, chiefly in Kansas, like the fact that the seed-heavy heads of the huge agricultural cultivars tend to droop. It protects the seeds from all birds except those able to fly upside down. (For the gardener, it is difficult to construe a downcast sunflower as a plus. Rather, the goal is an upturned face, all the better to enjoy the plant’s heliotropism, or ability to track the path of the sun across the sky all day until a thick stem leaves the face of the flower expectantly fixed east.)

Outside of the drooping agro-giants, the choice of seed offered to home gardeners tends to boil down to the fuzzy and lurid. There is much to be said for their flowers’ show-stopping value, but it takes smart planting to avoid achieving the horticultural equivalent of Disneyland.

To enlist their often wonky scale and loud colors with sophistication and punch, one solution is to partner them with yet more garish cultivars from the composite family. There are three compelling reasons to open this box of crayons: bees, butterflies and birds. To the pollinator and gleaner, each composite amounts to a landing pad with a restaurant on it.

In constructing an exotic composite garden from nursery pots and seed, imagine starting with a stage army of artichokes, with their spectacular serrated leaves already sprouting from 1-gallon cans. Tucked in the earth around them -- given 2 feet on each side -- are seeds for yellow Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia), purple and pink coneflowers (Echinacea).

Now, for random sculptural bursts from the rear and maybe an intruder to the fore, drop in seeds for towering sunflowers. Then why not float the lot in camomile? Water, wait, toss in the family cat and it has the potential to be as strange and thrilling as Rousseau’s “The Repast of the Lion.”

It takes a dedicated gardener and a more sophisticated eye to manage the native sunflower in a garden, but the rewards are so profound that they account for the righteous smirks of enviro-landscapers. If almost all composites attract butterflies, none can match the natives for lyrical traffic. It’s a case of local fauna knowing its flora.

First, one must find the sunflower seeds for Helianthus annuus adapted to Los Angeles. O’Brien collected the ones for Rancho Santa Ana along Interstate 5. (The rest of us would be better advised to go to a seed supplier specializing in land restoration, such as S&S; Seeds in Carpinteria.) O’Brien advises using sunflowers at the back of a border; planted in the autumn before the first winter rains, these will reach 5 feet by spring. If you water them, which should be done between rarely and never, watch the spray on the foliage -- it can cause rust.

O’Brien and Clark recommend partnering seeds for our native Helianthus annuus with a mix of evergreen shrubs also from the composite family, such as goldenbush and brittlebush. Coyote bush has an unflaggingly lively green even in drought, and October blossoms so fragrant that they could embarrass a gardenia. Sagebrush is a thrilling, silver-leaved shrub with yellow flowers in September, and with early autumn seeds so rich in oil that they draw even the rare, spotted doves to inner-city gardens.

Among the annuals or blues and reds, O’Brien likes native thistles. Or there is the option of mixing them with other pollinator-friendly natives while pumping up spring color with a wash of royal blue from ceanothus, followed by sky blue in summer from Cleveland sage.

Instead of floating camomile at the border’s edge, Artemisia californica could provide dreamy fill and bewitching aromatics, when bruised.

Whichever approach you use, exotic or native, the art of gardening with composites goes beyond color and water consumption. The potential for choosing a noxious weed is high, particularly with exotics. In the best-known comp exchange between Europe and the Americas, we gave Europe the sunflower, and it gave us the dandelion.

O’Brien warns against using any of the parachute-seeded foreign varieties, particularly the highly invasive Euro-comps Italian thistle and yellow star thistle.

The choice among indigenous composites is vast. When the Flora of North America project published its audit of the sunflower family last March, the list ran to three volumes and 2,413 species. We know our sunflower. Who knows what wonders lay in the stories of the other 2,412?

Our sunflower has many faces. It took Helianthus annuus 6 million years to become the flower by the freeway. Four thousand years of seed selection by humans, first by early agriculturists, latterly by Western breeders, led to the frilly dandies at Trader Joe’s.

Hold either the wild or cultivated flower and one is touching the evolution of the Americas, the origins of farming, Hopewell Indian culture, Aztec, Incan too, Cortez’s landing, a Russian oil industry, French Impressionism, a wildlife magnet, the future of the corn belt, and above all, a beautiful plant. Not bad for a flower basking in September sunshine and radiating it back to Los Angeles in an elegiac salute to summer.

emily.green@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Be showy ... or not

After centuries in the hands of breeders, showy sunflowers have about as much in common with wild ones as a poodle has to a wolf. Show flowers need irrigation; natives drink when it rains. Butterflies like both; birds prefer natives. Here are sources for those lovable commercial cultivars, along with recommendations on where to find seed, stock and information about their wild progenitors and other members of the sunflower family.

American sunflower: Helianthus annuus, the classic American sunflower. Seed Savers Exchange and Thompson & Morgan list dozens of stunning commercial cultivars that have been selected over centuries to emphasize unusual colors, long necks and textures as fuzzy as a teddy bear. By contrast, the seeds sold by S&S; Seeds in Carpinteria have been collected from the rugged wild versions, which have lighter stems, branching habits, smaller but more plentiful flowers and blooming cycles in autumn. The seeds have been gathered from in and around Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, so they produce plants expressly adapted to grow here. Plant them in late autumn and they will develop long penetrating roots that allow them to go with little or no irrigation.

Brittlebush: Encelia californica (also sometimes called the California sunflower) and E. farinosa are two native evergreen shrubs with the mixture of handsome foliage and routine golden flowering. E. californica is more daintily proportioned, says Bart O’Brien, and with pruning can remain at knee height. In common with many deep-rooted natives, both are recommended for erosion control. Give them water and allow them to range, but Curtis Clark warns against fast, floppy growth. E. farinosa has aromatic leaves, hence the Spanish name incienso.

California aster: Lessingia filaginifolia and the cultivar, L. filaginifolia (silver carpet). Perennial and evergreen with silvery foliage and pink flowers. This forms a good border’s edge, particularly good in coastal gardens.

California (or cobweb) thistle: Cirsium occidentale and C. proteanum. Annual or short-lived perennials. Blooms in the color spectrum where lavender meets pink. Architectural foliage and limbs. Attracts all manner of birds, particularly finches, and the American Lady butterfly.

Coyote bush: Baccharis pilularis. Evergreen shrub whose pale flowers smell like a cross between jasmine and a gardenia. Reaches 5 to 6 feet tall but can be pruned into shapes or a hedge. A good evergreen structural shrub in an annual flower garden.

Goldfields: Lasthenia californica, L. fremontii, L. coronaria, L. glabrata. Spring-blooming annual wildflower that carpets valley floors and vernal pools after winter rains. Manna for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Plant with later-blooming annuals and shrubs to sustain color through the season.

Goldenbush: Ericameria cuneata, E. parishii. The latest and most spectacular fall bloom of a California composite may come from this genus of hillside plants that need little more than a rock formation to survive. Evergreen foliage looks good year-round, says O’Brien, and its blooms in late September and October look like molten gold. Perfect for rock gardens, with E. cuneata 4 to 6 inches tall and E. parishiii from 3 to 5 feet tall.

Golden yarrow: Eriophyllum confertiflorum and E. nevinii (canyon silver). Silver-leaved evergreen shrub with floating pads of deep gold in the summer. Perfect for the dry butterfly garden. Prune after the fall bloom “using newly emerging shoots to guide you,” O’Brien advises.

Sagebrush: Artemisia californica and A. tridentata. Evergreen shrubs. The tridentata is more silver and arching and grows slowly to 4 feet. A. californica is more a floppy, spreading habit better for groundcover and borders. Each becomes topped by tiny golden flowers in late August, early September. The foliage of A. californica is scented; the seeds (or achenes) of A. tridentata attracts the rare spotted dove.

Tarweeds: Madia elegans. The arching, bright sunflower can be seen every summer in the Santa Monica Mountains. Hemizonia fasciculata, a simpler, plucky little yellow flower that can bloom throughout the summer.

Seed sources

Irrigated conventional gardens: try the charming clown-faced cultivars of Helianthus annuus; for companionable composites such as Tithonia and Echinacea, look at the catalogs of Seeds Savers Exchange, seedsavers.org/products.aspdept50 and Thompson & Morgan, seeds.thompson-morgan.com/us/en/product/6947.

Native gardens and seeds collected from wildflowers: in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, visit www.ssseeds.com, P.O. Box 1275, Carpinteria, CA 93014, (805) 684 0436. Go with a friend. There is a $100 minimum purchase, but the seeds can be mixed to order.

Seedlings and shrubs

For artemisias, encelias and

ericamerias, three good sources are the Tree of Life Nursery, 33201 Ortega

Highway, P.O. Box 635, San Juan

Capistrano, (949) 728-0685, www.treeoflifenursery.com; Matilija Nursery,

8225 Waters Road, Moorpark,

(805) 523 8604, www.matilijanursery.com; Theodore Payne Foundation, 10459 Tuxford Street, Sun Valley

(818) 768-1802, www.theodorepayne.org.

-- Emily Green


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