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Suddenly Sunflowers : No longer relegated to the alley fence or the corn row, it seems everyone's sprouting up : sunflowers in Southland gardens these days.


Sunflowers are sprouting everywhere. You can't help but see them on greeting cards, at florists, printed on trivets and bathroom towels, starring in television commercials, made into napkin rings and barrettes, and sometimes, you even see them in nice gardens.

No longer are sunflowers relegated to the back 40, to lean their droopy heads against the alley fence or grow beside the corn. In today's garden, sunflowers have taken on a new dignity and position as ornamental flowers, to cut for the house or enjoy where they stand.

They certainly won't be found growing next to the corn in the Brentwood garden of Hilary Byk, but center stage, in decidedly formal beds with California Giant zinnias, outlined by neat boxwood hedges. They grow in the company of topiary giraffes and grandly trellised roses, where you might more expect to see perennials or at least tidy beds of squat marigolds or petunias. In these elegant surroundings, they're clearly not in Kansas anymore.

Sunflowers are considered chic enough to grace expensive bouquets and are so popular at fashionable florists that Kathy Orlando, manager of Rita Flora on La Brea, a bright and airy floral shop that includes a little bistro, says they never have enough.

Seedsman Shepard Ogden of the Cook's Garden, whose catalogue probably offers the largest variety of sunflower seeds, says that sunflowers are now his top-seller. "They came from nowhere to become the best-selling flower in our catalogue," he said.

Their catalogue lists a baker's dozen varieties, but only one will grow to make that huge head full of seeds that most people think of when sunflowers get mentioned.

The others are new ornamental varieties grown for their colorful flowers. They may be a velvety red, mahogany brown, golden yellow, burnt orange or a creamy yellow. There's even a new double-flowered variety (not yet available) that is calendula orange.

Some are spectacular combinations of these colors and most are seldom seen. A lot of gardeners don't even know they exist because they are not in many seed catalogues, or at many nurseries.

These stunning new varieties of the old American favorite are coming from Europe, where interest in this native American flower has been greater because cut flowers are a bigger business. Some have even won Europe's coveted Fleuroselect award. Many of these colorful kinds also make seed, so you can have your cake and eat it too, if you can resist cutting them for the house.

And, nothing could be easier to grow. Or faster.

"They are very fast," said Shirley Kerins, who included 15 kinds, all barely contained in their one gallon cans, at the last Huntington Botanical Gardens' plant sale. "Talk about Jack and the beanstalk. You can watch sunflowers grow."

Twelve feet is not tall for a sunflower. In the Byk garden, the sunflowers grew quickly to that height until "it was like walking in a forest," says Byk.

There are smaller kinds. Some grow only a foot tall and are perfect in a pot, on a balcony railing or in the middle of a patio table. Some of these midgets have shown up as blooming plants at nurseries.

The tall ones might be more fun to grow, especially for children. Children find the seed easy to handle and plant, and the sunflowers grow quicker than kids can lose interest and soon tower above them. When they're finished, children can eat the seed or feed the birds.

The tall sunflowers are not hard to find room for because they are as skinny as they are tall.

Landscape architect Mike Swimmer grew a whole forest of them in Rancho Park (some appear in our bouquet on the cover), in a narrow little space between the driveway and his neighbor's fence. Most were grown for the birds, his birds, that live in a nearby aviary.

When the flowers are finished, he waits until the back of the sunflowers turn brown (which indicates that they are dry), then hangs the seed heads by their stems in the aviary and lets the birds fish out their own seed snacks. To save the seed for yourself do the same thing, but hang them in the garage until wanted.

He also likes the flowers, though many are up so high you can barely see them. "I fell in love with sunflowers after seeing 'Vincent and Theo,' " he says. There is one scene in that movie where Van Gogh is painting in a huge field of sunflowers.

Van Gogh might even be the inspiration for the sunflower craze. Rita Flora's Kathy Orlando is sure that everyone started wanting sunflower bouquets right after the exhibit of Van Gogh's later paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1987. "It seems like it's been building since then."

Shirley Kerins has another reason or two why they sold over 300 sunflower plants at this year's sale (up from almost none the previous year). She thinks they're a symbol of a simpler life in the garden, a refreshing contrast to some of the sophisticated plants with long Latin names that we've been growing the last few years.

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