Flowers of the Sun: Helianthus, Sunchokes, and Farmer Ants
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
In October most plants are preparing for the impending cold, shunting their energy into their root systems and seeds -and then there are the sunflowers, cheery and bright, gaily obliging the last pollinators of the season. All 52 species of sunflowers are native to North America and belong to the genus Helianthus in the Asteraceae (Compositae) family. Many are perennials with gorgeous golden blooms, flowering effusively until late fall. As compared to the familiar annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) with its gargantuan single flower head, the perennial Helianthus species typically have multiple mini sunflowers, creating a mass of buzzing sunshine.
These native sunflowers attract beneficial insects to the garden, such as parasitoid wasps and soldier beetles (pictured below in amorous embrace). The seeds also feed many songbirds; my maximilian sunflowers bring beautiful goldfinches to my garden. Some Helianthus species grow quite tall, providing shelter and cover for wildlife.
The maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) has become very popular, especially in the southwestern US, as a native wildflower for xeric habitats. It is quite tall, with a tendency to fall over; so many gardeners cut it back mid-summer before it flowers to avoid staking and create more demure flowering branches. Native people ate/eat the roots; I have not tried them, but would love to hear from any readers who have.
The maximilian sunflower is a fun plant to observe ant/treehopper mutualism; see the photos below of ants "milking" treehopper larvae. Ants “farm” treehoppers similarly to the way they "farm" aphids. The ants protect the treehoppers from predators, and in turn suck up the sweet exudate, or "honeydew", produced from the leaf-sucking treehoppers.
The above photo was taken on the underside of a giant ragweed leaf (Ambrosia trifida, Asteraceae), another choice plant for observing this interesting insect dance. Pictured here are immature treehoppers, as opposed to the mature treehoppers, pictured above.
Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) is another popular native perennial sunflower. As its name suggests, it prefers wetter habitats with well-drained soils, but it also thrives in average garden soil. There are shorter cultivars available, or the plants may be cut back as described above.
Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is a native sunflower with edible tubers. Its name certainly doesn’t sound American, but not to worry, it does have excellent family values and likes to dominate its surroundings.
When the first Europeans came to North America, they learned about this edible sunflower from the Native people, and promptly brought it back to Europe. Plant breeders selected for larger tubers with less nooks and crannies (the better to catch gritty dirt with, my dear). The Italian word for sunflower is girasole; you can imagine how, over time, girasole artichoke slowly permutated into Jerusalem artichoke.
Anyhow, these Euro-improved varieties are now commonly grown all over the world as an ornamental perennial vegetable. They can easily take over –just give them room to do their thing, and no one gets hurt.
The tubers are a good food for nourishing beneficial intestinal flora. They contain inulin, which cannot be digested by human enzymes, but is manna for our digestive minions. Foods high in inulin are called prebiotics (our beneficial digestive flora called probiotics). If you haven’t had the pleasure of eating Jerusalem artichoke, I recommend eating a small amount the first time, as they can be somewhat gassy. Some eaters have affectionately dubbed the tubers “fartichokes”. Other people, with more constructive dispositions, call the tubers sunchokes.
As the light grows dimmer, my choices are growing slimmer for seasonal flowers to feature. Lucky for you, my dear reader, (and perhaps myself too) I am heading to Florida for ten days, where I will likely find many unsuspecting flowers to photograph. I am taking my students to the Suwannee and Ichetucknee Rivers to learn about southeastern medicinal plants – yeehaw!
Just in case you were wondering, I am not above honoring special flower requests.
For more on cultivation and pollinator/ wildlife relationships with Maximilian Sunflower
Meet The Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR is the founder, primary instructor, and Creative Director of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school serving thousands of students from around the globe. She's a professional plant-human matchmaker and bonafide plant geek, with a degree in botany and over 30 years of experience teaching and writing about herbalism, medicine making, and organic herb cultivation. Juliet’s lifelong captivation with medicinal weeds and herb gardening has birthed many botanical enterprises over the decades, including an herbal nursery and a farm-to-apothecary herbal products business.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession through her writing and photography in her online programs, on her personal blog Castanea, and in her new book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating and Handcrafting Herbal Remedies. Juliet and her family reside in a home overrun with houseplants and books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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8 thoughts on “Flowers of the Sun – Helianthus, sunchokes and farmer ants”
I have really swamp like wet area in my garden near the wooden fence and a drive way which is dry but near the car garage (attached to the house). I personally love it that its so good for wildlife, however I was strongly discouraged from growing them as the ants (carpenter ants) will flock to them and in turn destroy the wood fence and enter the house. Now I am all about native and want to do my part. Unfortunately I have an urban backyard and I can not place them far away from the house. Is that true – that these ants will not just come for the sunflower and will destroy property along with it ?. Thank you in advance.
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Unfortunately this is true – carpenter ants do have an affinity for moist wood and are known to damage structures. To be on the safe side, planting your sunflowers further from your home would be ideal if possible.
Shannon Hagedorn says:
How can I tell the difference in identifying helianthus tuberosus vs helianthus maximiliani? They look so much alike. I thought for a long time that I was seeing helianthus tuberosus until someone told me it was helianthus maximiliani. Are tubers of H. maximiliani edible too? Thank you
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Here is a key for identifying different Helianthus species: Michigan Flora – Helianthus. I don’t have any experience eating any Helianthus species besides H. tuberosus, but H. maximiliani has been used as a food by native people. If you do try them, please share your experience!
Daughter Number Three says:
Can you cut back Jerusalem artichokes in midsummer to reduce height, as you can for the other two described?
Juliet Blankespoor says:
You can definitely cut them back. Pruning the above ground parts will actually encourage the plant to produce a bigger tuber. Thanks for the question!
Cristina Eury says:
I live in Gainesville & one of my favorite things to do when hosting travelers is to take them down the ichetucknee river! It is absolutely gorgeous!
I enjoy your beautiful and informative site! Thankyou! I am trying to find out if the Helianthus annuus has edible root tubers?
I have found info on jerusalem artuichokes having edible tubers…but am wondering if you know a source I can find info whether Helianthus annuus roots are edible.
The info I have found is mixed.
Thankyou for your help if you can!