Sunflower guru grows varieties unique in color, size
Tom Heaton has devoted his life's work to a flower that's synonymous with sunny days.
"Isn't that pretty?" Heaton said with obvious pride when he spotted a luminous white flower edged with pink. "A lot of things out here you've never seen before."
Heaton is Yolo (Calif.) County's Sunflower Man. The world's leading sunflower hybridizer, he creates stunning new varieties in a rainbow of colors, destined for gardens and florists around the globe.
All those orange sunflowers with black centers on "Oprah"? Those were ProCut Orange, Heaton's best-seller.
Quick-growing and easy to ship, sunflowers are available from Valentine's Day to Christmas. More than 500 million stems are grown annually for cut flowers.
New varieties -- with light-colored centers instead of traditional black -- have increased their use as an all-seasons floral staple.
During the summer, Heaton hosts visitors from dozens of countries. Often, they represent seed company giants such as Burpee, looking for custom mixes or exclusive varieties.
Or they're cut-flower growers, seeking low-cost annuals in eye-popping petal color combinations.
"People tell us what they want and we try to create it," Heaton said. "There's now about 5,000 different types of sunflowers."
Venelin Dimitrov, Burpee's flower product manager, is a frequent visitor to Heaton's sunflower field. He's seen Heaton develop a new variety from one lonely mutation to global best-seller.
"It takes years and years to create a variety," Dimitrov said. "That's what makes Tom so special; he has the patience. ... He's devoted 30-plus years to just one product. And he doesn't release anything to market until he's 100 percent sure it will perform."
In sunflowers, size matters, too. Heaton developed American Giant and Kong, two best-sellers that, with little prompting, reach 15 feet. Heaton has had several top 19 feet.
A favorite for backyard gardeners, American Giant produces 15-inch seed-heavy heads weighing up to 6 pounds.
When Hurricane Irene swept through Burpee's Pennsylvania testing grounds recently, most of the sunflowers were flattened, Dimitrov noted. Out of 180 plants in several different mammoth varieties, four American Giants were the only ones left standing.
Each summer, Heaton's companies -- NuFlowers LLC and Sunflower Selections -- lease 18 acres of farmland in Woodland, Calif., Heaton's outdoor "lab" for the breeding of new varieties. Next year, the production will move to another site to avoid contamination from volunteer seedlings.
Olga Chengaeva, Heaton's wife, concentrates on miniatures -- knee-high sunflowers with full-size heads on short stems. Surrounded by towering cousins in their Woodland field, these petite sunflowers are destined to bring smiles to gardeners without yards; they're designed for pots and patios.
Chengaeva met Heaton in her native Russia, where sunflowers rank as a major crop.
"After I met Tom and was exposed to his work, I got really excited about it," she said. "I started getting hooked, bagging sunflowers, collecting pollen. Now, I have my own breeding and propagation projects. I hope one day to develop my own variety."
Mixing and matching parent plants in 100 net-covered hoop houses, Heaton will have about 45,000 new candidates this summer from which to choose that next sunflower sensation.
When he sees a flower he likes, Heaton slips a plastic bag over its head to keep it pure and preserve the seed. He goes through 30,000 bags a summer.
"It takes about nine years to get a flower to market," he said. "A lot of work went into these."
Heaton, 60, has spent almost four decades making sunflowers. He started in the business's seed side, but gravitated to beauty.
"It's instant gratification," he explained of sunflower's growing popularity. "They're easy. They bloom in 40 to 50 days. People love them."
Their quick growth also makes them much cheaper than other cut flowers.
"Chrysanthemums and dahlias are a lot more expensive and take a lot more time," Heaton said. "That's one of our goals; to create sunflowers that look like other flowers in bouquets."
Lemon Aura, for example, could be a dahlia with its frilly, light yellow petals. Other yet-unnamed varieties have spoon-shaped petals just like a spider mum.
"Tom comes up with all the names," Chengaeva said. "That's one of the hardest things to do."
Some are obvious, such as wine-red Chianti or the daisylike Coconut Ice, the first pure white sunflower.
Yolo County has become the cradle of American sunflower development.
An estimated 40,000 acres in Yolo, Solano and Colusa counties are devoted to sunflowers, primarily for seed stock that will be sold to farmers and gardeners worldwide. That adds up to about 20,000 tons of seed a year.
"China, Europe, South Africa; we ship seed every day all over the world," Heaton said. "People appreciate our hard work and quality."
Now America's best-selling summer annual, sunflowers are varieties of Helianthus annuus, a fast-growing member of the aster family. Sunflowers often reach 10 to 12 feet tall, with seed heads up to 2 feet across.
The florets that form the seeds inside the circular head grow in perfect interconnecting spirals. Typically, there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other.
Ornamental sunflowers are becoming increasingly popular as cut flowers. New varieties -- such as those developed by California hybridizer Tom Heaton -- imitate more-expensive dahlias and chrysanthemums. They come in virtually every color but blue.
Seeds for Heaton's sunflowers are available from most of the major seed houses. For example, Burpee.com carries 39 varieties and custom sunflower mixes.
Heaton and his company recently developed several dwarf sunflowers -- growing under 2 feet tall and great for pots or patios. Heaton also came up with two of the best-selling giants, Kong and the aptly named American Giant.
For more information, including photos of varieties and seed sources, see Nuflowersllc.com and sunflowerselections.com.
If you want to grow your own sunflowers next season, here's how to get started.
Sunflowers are usually planted April through July with harvest from late summer into fall. Most varieties bloom in about 50 days. They like a lot of water on a regular basis. Feed with a liquid fertilizer weekly. Shorter varieties can be grown in containers.
As their name implies, sunflowers prefer full sun, sheltered from wind. They prefer rich, moist soil to promote their rapid growth.
Other tips: Stake the plant as it matures for more support. Sunflowers have very deep roots (up to 9 feet) and tend not to transplant well. With their height, sunflowers can shade other crops, so grow them on the north end of the garden.
They're compatible with cucumbers, beans and corn, but potatoes hate to be near them. (With tomatoes, they're just OK.) Sunflowers will attract ants and aphids away from other vegetables without suffering much damage.
Harvest: Sunflower seeds are ready to harvest in 90 to 120 days. To keep birds away, drape the flower head with cheesecloth when the petals turn brown. As the seeds mature, place a large bag -- brown paper, mesh or burlap, not plastic -- over the head and tie it loosely at the stem, allowing for some air circulation. Check it periodically; the back of the head will turn yellow or brown.
When the seeds are black-and-white striped, they're ready. Cut the stem about a foot below the head and hang it upside down -- still in the bag -- in a dry ventilated place such as a garage or shed. It will dry completely in about two weeks.
Shake the head to free seeds into the bag, then rub the head gently to remove the remainder. Store seeds for up to a year in sealed containers or freeze after shelling.
If you leave the sunflower in the garden, birds will pick the head clean. But the seeds they drop will sprout next spring.