15 Sunflowers for the Southwest – Land of the Sun

The simple sunflower is a native Southwest plant, used for centuries by the Native peoples.    If you plant the right varieties – and plant them in the spring – you will have a gorgeous garden full of bright sunflowers.


Sunflower Origins

Originally sunflowers grew only in North and Central America (the “New World”).    After  Europeans “discovered” sunflowers, they were rapidly shared around the globe. There are over 70 species of sunflower, and countless varieties.    Best known is the annual garden sunflower (Helianthus annus).

The sunchoke, or Jerusalem artichoke, is from Southeastern USA. Photo courtesy N. Kurzenko

As it happens, the number of perennial species (such as the “Jerusalem” artichoke or sunchoke – Helianthus tuberosus) far outnumber the annuals.    But today we are only looking at one of the annual species – Helianthus annus, the common garden sunflower. (List of all species soon under “Resources”)

Sunflowers for the Southwest

As tempting as giant or mammoth varieties are, it is better to select smaller plants with smaller leaves for our overall climate.  The plants with smaller leaves and smaller flowers will perform better in our low humidity.


Low Desert (think Phoenix, Yuma): ‘Havasupai,’ ‘Ring of Fire,’ ‘Velvet Queen.’

Middle Desert (think Las Vegas, Tucson, El Paso): ‘Drop Dead Red,’ ‘Havasupai,’ ‘Italian White,’ ‘Vanilla Ice,’ ‘Zohar.’

High Desert (think Alburqueque): ‘Drop Dead Red,’ ‘Tarahumara White,’ ‘Taiyo,’ ‘Vanilla Ice,’ ‘Zohar.’

Cool Highlands (like Flagstaff): ‘Autumn Beauty,’ ‘Drop Dead Red,’ ‘Tarahumara White.’

Cold Mountains (Reno, Santa Fe): ‘Autumn Beauty,’ ‘Ring of Fire,’ ‘Rostov,’ ‘Tarahumara White.’ For dye: ‘Hopi Tceqa’

All Regions: For containers select from dwarf varieties such as ‘Elf,’ ‘Irish Eyes,’ ‘Sunspot,’ or ‘Teddy Bear.’

For more about these zones – well, the hackers destroyed that. I have to carefully try once again to rebuild that page and not plagiarize my own writing that has appeared in other articles or books. Why “plagiarize” – since they are my words? Because the search engines don’t bother to check that – and will blacklist me.  Then this handy post will never come up in your feed. Hackers that release malware with no thought to the creations and lives they destroy are truly evil. Sorry. Rant over.


Planting Sunflowers

gardening-with-soule-sunflower-helianthus-seedSunflowers grow very well from seed – and are happiest is grown “in situ” – that’s the fancy Latin term for right on site – in the spot where they will grow all their lives.


Plant when the soils are above 65F and the chance of frost is past.  Well-drained soil good garden soil is ideal.  An improved bed about 18 inches deep.  Soil pH of 6.0 to 7.0 is best.

gardening-with-soule-sunflower-helianthus-seedFor Southwestern cultivars like Havasupai and Hopi Tcequa, pH can be as high as 8.0.


Sunflowers prefer full sun for at least six hours a day. That said, afternoon shade in those hotter Desert zones is good.


gardening-with-soule-sunflower-helianthus-growKeep young seedlings moist, but as plants mature allow the soil to dry somewhat between watering.


Not generally required. You can use a high phosphorous “flowering fertilizer” when plants begin to flower will ensure good flower, and thus seed production.

One of the many lovely varieties of sunflower now available. Image courtesy of N. Kurzenko.

Some Sunflower Science

Sunflowers are complicate – and a whole lot is going on!  There are ray flowers and disk flowers.  The ray flowers around the outside are there to help attract pollinators.  The disk flowers mature and develop slowly over time in a complicated spiral.  They open first with pollen structures.  As the flowers become more mature, the pollen structures wither and the female structures emerge.


Eat Your Crop

That’s more a topic for another site I write for – Savor the Southwest. And there are so many tasty ways to eat sunflowers! Link to eating sunflowers – Part I.

Honey bees like sunflowers, but so do a number of our smaller native stingless bees.

Beautiful and Sustaining

gardening-with-soule-sunflower-helianthus-grow-feed-birdsSunflowers deserve a place in your sustainable garden because they attract pollinators.    Even if you won’t use the seeds for cooking or eating, consider drying the seed heads and putting them out to attract birds next spring after you start your vegetable garden.

Seed eating birds, like this wren, will eat a bugs for extra protein, so attracting birds to your garden helps keep the pest levels down.

Other Sunflower Family Members

Not a fan of growing annual plants that live their entire lives in a few months?  Think of some perennial sunflower family members. Sunflowers are in the same family as daisies – the April birth month flower.  I did a post about a seven pretty perennials just last week.

Need Some Garden Help?

May I recommend my book?  The Month By Month Guide offers tips for your landscape (yes even lawns and roses) in every month of the year.  I have a few copies left and am offering them to you – my loyal readers. Plus – when you buy from me you get a signed copy!soule-books-buy

From the review:

“A great reference book is key to successful gardening in the region where you live. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening takes the guesswork out of gardening for anyone residing in the Southwest. With this book, you’ll know what to do each month to enjoy a thriving garden all year, from January to December. Chronologically organized, this guide is full of critical gardening when-to and how-to advice, along with illustrated step-by-step instructions.

The book’s author is Jacqueline Soule, a Tucson-based gardening expert. She knows this arid region inside and out, and she’s written several articles and books packed with her gardening advice. Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico Month-by-Month Gardening showcases Soule’s expertise in one easy-to-read guide.”

Profits from the sale of this book go to the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.


© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt – but you must give proper credit to Gardening With Soule. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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2 thoughts on “15 Sunflowers for the Southwest – Land of the Sun

  1. Where might I purchase the best selection of sunflower seeds, I would be looking for the “middle desert” seeds. Thanks

    1. Hi Barbara,
      Botanical Interests Seeds should have the ones mentioned.
      But if you are in Tucson – head over to Rillito Nursery on La Cholla. They have them in stock!

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