Farewell, Woodland Sunflower

The Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) in the back garden is no more. It was growing in a little bed I carved out along the brick path to the alley gate that Judy and I built.

Woodland Sunflower
Woodland Sunflower

Woodland Sunflower is one of very few sunflowers that does not need full sun or something close. I was tempted by the catalogue’s promise of large yellow flowers brightening up areas of dappled shade. Woodland Sunflower’s performance was never all that impressive, though.

There wasn’t much of a “wow” factor in the flower display. Plus, the stems were rather weak and tended to flop even after cutting back. I suppose the shade may have been a little too dappled, but still.

Nevertheless, for at least six years Woodland Sunflower came up and bloomed reliably. Until this year, when just a few stems came up, so that the Woodland Sunflower bed looks like this.

Woodland Sunflowers
The bed formerly occupied by Woodland Sunflowers.

There are some weeds and an invasive shrub honeysuckle trying to establish themselves, and that’s about it.

What happened? Might have been last year’s drought, because this spot got virtually no supplemental watering. Also, sunflowers are allopathic (that is, they use chemicals to inhibit the growth of other plants), and I have heard the theory that over time they will actually poison themselves if kept in the same space.

In any case, the real question is: what am I going to plant in this little bed now? I’d like to grow some compact shrubs like Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’. However, Judy is likely to veto any shrub. If I plant perennials, I want it to be something that does not require staking or cutting back. Maybe Bleeding Heart (Lamprocampnos spectabilis) with some ferns? Epimediums?

It’s a spot with dappled shade, can get kind of dry in a hot summer but also gets lots of water in spring because of how the garden drains.

Anybody have any suggestions? Also, what am I going to put in this spot during the summer if I don’t plant anything permanent before fall? Maybe wood chips with some containers? Also, has anybody had a different experience with Woodland Sunflower?

26 Comments on “Farewell, Woodland Sunflower

  1. Hmmm…it’s been a long time since I had to wonder what grows in the shade. Most everything in Albuquerque needs to handle full sun. I’m not a good candidate for suggestions, but I look forward to seeing what you choose!

  2. Jason, I have no experience with Woodland Sunflowers, sorry. But I think you might plant there some hostas, dicentra, Dasiphora or others that do not require much care.
    Have a nice week!

  3. Why don’t you try heucheras? They love shade, there are some phenomenal colour combinations, they flower, grow low and spread and seem to be able to handle a variety of conditions.

  4. That’s interesting about the chemicals in sunflowers. How exciting to have a whole bed to plant! How about Astilbe, or Astrantias. Both fairly compact and like dappled shade. Ferns sound nice too.

  5. Don’t despair…I’m sure you’ll find something to fill the space. When one plant goes it’s always a new chance, that’s how I (try to) look at it 😉 I too think that ferns would look nice mixed with something like Epimedium

  6. I can see it already. You absolutely must have a Ghost fern. It is a hybrid of the native Lady fern and the Japanese Painted fern…a beauty with the vigor of the native. Then, build your plant collection around the fern’s color and texture.

  7. Your bed is already full of what I was thinking – hosta, bleeding hearts, ferns, heucheras. I have shade gardens and also have european ginger and astilbe. In the meantime, I’d go with your mulch and pot(s). A whole new bed will come to life next spring. 🙂

  8. My new obsession is Helleborus. I’m planning on putting them in our part-shade garden but I haven’t actually planted them yet.

  9. I didn’t know that about the sunflowers. Blogs are great for picking up information. Looks like pretty dry shade – I’d suggest: Carex Ice Dance, any Athyrium – Marian’s suggestions are excellent, Hosta, Heuchera (some of the newer varieties can be a bit delicate – a bullet proof variety is Dale’s Strain that can be grown from seed & every plant is different – do a Google image search to check them out), Tricyrtis for fall flowers, Polygonatum odoratum ‘Variegatum’ the perennial of the year 2013 – looks revolting in a pot in the nursery – gorgeous in the garden, Deutsia Chardonnay Pearls – small and well behaved and does well in dry shade. I’d stay away from an ephemeral like the Bleeding Heart – while pretty in the spring – it poops out in the summer and you’ll be left with a bunch of dead leaves and then a hole. So nice to have a good excuse to go to the nursery – although in my opinion there is no bad excuse out there.

  10. Aw poor little plant! Interesting to think it could have poisoned itself. I would go for a little wildlife haven in that spot with lavender, scabious, poppies, anything quite natural – if that makes sense since all flowers are natural! The lavender would last and you can chop and change the annuals each year. Pots are a good way of finding out if plants will work before you go permanent and I think they look great. Really looking forward to seeing what you’ll do!

  11. People here really have knowledge about plants. Wow! Interesting fact about sunflowers. So, how come those annual sunflowers in my garden grows with everything else? I planted some perennial sunflower this year, so not sure how they are going to behave. I hope they let all the other plants survive.

  12. Jason I have grown helianthus throughout the garden and I can’t stop it from growing. But mine all prefer part sun to full sun and the more sun the bigger the plants. They will grow in moist almost wet conditions and even in drier conditions but not too dry. They seed all over the place and I am forever removing them from the craziest places. I think if you have a sunnier spot try them again.

    As far as what now….I like the idea of waiting and putting mulch with containers as it is getting a bit too hot to plant at least here it is. Then heucheras are a great native for dry shady areas.

  13. My vote is for mulch/containers for now. All of the plant suggestions have been good but I like your idea of including epimediums as they look great year round and can take just about any conditions including dry shade and soggy feet in the spring! My current fave is Epimedium wushanense & I’ve planted a couple in the dry shady part of my parking strip.

  14. I have found that many of these Helianthus need a season to become established. I purchased a pale yellow prairie sunflower last year. It barely grew and died in August. I thought is was a goner! This spring I was surprised with five stems.

  15. Hi Jason, it does have lovely little yellow flowers, but they’re kind of lost among everything else. For a replacement I would vote for fern (dryopteris), bleeding heart and hebes (for evergreen interest) or rosemary. It’s lacking in flower though so you could call it a foliage bed. A clematis up a wigwam might work too, if it doesn’t get too dry and the clematis can come up into more sun.

  16. Well, itea is pretty small, so maybe Judy won’t notice it’s a shrub. How about Chelone? It likes part shade, wet conditions and but is allegedly drought tolerant once it’s established. Just avoid the really tall kind, which will need to be staked.

  17. Poor little plant….how about sowing fast growing wildflower mix then shrubs next year?

    I didn’t know that about sunflowers….I hope mine don’t do that to my new wildflower border!xxxx

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