Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Willow-leaved Sunflower

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Feathery stems six feet tall and still on the way up:  Ah, the joy of willow-leaf sunflower before it flowers.  The leaves can be seven inches long but barely a quarter inch wide.  This really-hardy perennial provides ferny foliage several feet taller than you could get with any hardy fern.  Yum!

 

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But by Labor Day, your "fern" has started to flower, with cheery yellow daisies that are glad to see you much of September. 

 

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And with the flowers comes the flop:  When incredible ferny stems, that in mid-August were so casually vertical, start to come into flower, they lose all discipline and decorum.  They start to wobble and splay (slowly, gently, so you don't yet catch on) but then, with the first heavy rain, lean over almost to horizontal.  Argh!  Willow-leaf sunflower is your chance to get an Eagle Scout merit badge in sophisticated staking.  (See "How to Handle it" below.)  Clearly, I'm still working on mine.

 

 

Here's how to grow this exciting perennial sunflower:

 

Latin Name

Helianthus salicifolius

Common Name

Willow-leaf Sunflower

Family

Asteraceae, the Aster family.

What kind of plant is it?

Flowering perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 9.

Habit

Upright unbranched stems from an expanding colony; the stems manage a casual verticality until just before flowering, when they lean heavily. 

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

A colony eight feet tall and wide—wider if allowed.

Texture

Definitively feathery and plumey, and at a uniquely large scale for any hardy perennial. 

Grown for

the foliage: the long, widely-spaced, and unusually narrow leaves—to seven inches long but barely a quarter inch wide—spiral up the stems, giving each an extremely airy cylindrical volume matched (but at only a third the height) only by thread-leaf bluestar, Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia.

 

its flowers: Loose clusters of two-inch bright yellow daisies top the stems. Their frank color and energy can seem like a distraction from the elegant and excitingly-restrained show of the foliage—unless, of course, you feel that color and energy are just what that feathery foliage really needs.

Flowering season

Late August into September. 

Culture

Sun, almost any soil as long as it doesn't get too dry; best with plenty of moisture.

How to handle it

Willow-leaf sunflower's chief thrill—the tall feathery stems—is also its chief liability: they flop terribly when they near their full height and then start to flower. If you cut the stems back by half in early July, the stems branch out and bloom, but never grow as high. That's easier in terms of staking (see below), but also means you never have the remarkable height of a full-size colony. If it's a shorter willow-leaf you want, then plant one of the shorter versions to begin with.  See "Variants" below.  

 

If you plant the straight species, go for its full height in late Summer, even though that means you'll need to resist the immediate perfection of the colony on its way upward in May, June, and July. In July, get in there with some discrete six-foot green pea stakes and green florist's wire to give the stems some support. Put a circle of stakes every eighteen inches, and a foot deep, all around the colony just inside the outermost stems so the stakes are at least somewhat hidden. At about four feet, wire loosely from stake-to-stake across the interior of the colony, first in one direction and than at 90 degrees: You'll be making a grid of wires. Wrap the wire once or twice around each stake as you go to keep it secure. Finish up by wiring around the perimeter of the colony.

 

It's good that there's still the foot of so of the bamboo canes above your wiring. In a month, if you have the time and the dedication, make another wire-grid at the very tops of the canes. The goal is to have support for nearly all of the stems, but to let some wave (and even flop) freely so the colony has some motion and doesn't look rigid.

 

After hard frost, remove the wiring and then the stakes, then cut the stems to the ground. Otherwise, the stems will splay outward right to the ground in Winter snow and ice, and be all the more tedious to cut back in early Spring.

Downsides

The stems' thrilling ascent from May through mid-August is, for me, at least, inevitably too seductive. If my reaction is "That's gorgeous! Perfection!" then, of course, I hesitate yet another week to provide some prophylactic staking so the colony doesn't, seemingly all-of-a-sudden, tilt outward in all directions as the flowering starts: Any intervention would mar the shimmery grace and startling height of the leafy stems. But then, this year as in the past, when the flowers start to open, the stems also start to wobble. Staking after-the-fact is impossible to do without the colony looking reigned in, even taken hostage.

 

The challenge of staking is willow-leaf sunflower's only hassle.  The plant is free of pests and diseases.

Variants

Ironically, eight-foot H. salicifolius has provided several much shorter cultivars. 'First Light' is only four feet tall and is, therefore, self-supporting. 'Table Mountain' is just eighteen inches, with a notably uniform and flat top.'Low Down' is only a foot. All are much easier to handle, but only because they've lost the potential to provide that eight-foot show of feathery vertical stems.

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By seed as well as by division in Spring.

Native habitat

Helianthus salicifolius is native to Missouri.

 
 
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