Sunflower, devil in disguise

>> Sunday, July 27, 2008

Isn’t this a beauty? This is what is known as a devil with an angels face. Why am I so disparaging of such a beautiful plant that brings forth visions of bright, happy, sunny times? Because its seed husks will kill any plant that tries to grow around it. It’s one of the ninja-like assassins of the plant world.

I had heard rumors about how nothing will grow under my bird feeders that are filled daily with black-oil sunflower seeds but I ignored these rumors because I wanted to keep birds coming into my yard. Hanna, at This Garden is Illegal, even presented a very compelling argument as to how these bully’s-in-disguise will try to take over. Well, after four years of feeding every bird that would land here, mainly finches and doves, I now have absolute proof.

Here is one of the feeders I have placed in three locations around my yard. This one is under an apple tree.

And here is what the ground underneath looks like after four years. I don’t bother removing any of the debris except for what the lawn mower sucks up as it passes and as you can see, nothing is growing.

Last Fall, when I still scoffed at the idea of a secret society of plant kingdom hit squads, I placed three very young Weigela My Monet under the dogwood tree in my front yard (directly under one of the now infamous plant-killing sunflower-seed-filled birdfeeders). They didn’t make it. My stubbornness caused the death of three defenseless shrubs and, trust me when I say, I am remorseful. Am I a believer now? You betcha. My only hope now is that these ne’er do wells never get organized.

I decided to research this fascinating world of cutthroat techniques to survive in the plant world and I found this list of unsociable plants:
Sugar Maple
Black Walnut
Balsam Poplar

Granted, some of these plants are a bit exotic to most gardeners yards which is why it seems so odd that sunflower would be counted among this dastardly bunch.

I also learned that some people are considering allelopathy, (the inhibition of growth of a plant due to biomolecules released by another), as a nonchemical alternative to weed control. What they found was that some plant-made chemicals are a more potent photosynthetic inhibitor than the majority of synthetic herbicides. They are even talking about using native species and decorative ornamentals to be placed in strategic locations to eliminate the backbreaking job of weeding without resorting to chemicals. Now, this I could go for.

In the meantime, I will not stop feeding birds what they love most because I enjoy hearing the birds singing and squawking just outside my window. I probably won’t stop growing sunflowers because, well, you know, they are beautiful. I just need to get my timing down so I can enjoy them as long as possible before cutting off their heads. Gardening can be so cruel.


MrBrownThumb July 31, 2008 at 4:31 PM  

Interesting post. I especially liked the links as they were very informative.

I had a "Jade" Sunflower reseed in my garden and I couldn't bring myself to weed it out after I noticed it reverted to one of the plain parents Jade must be made from.

I better get to the heads before the birds do or I'll have hundreds more.

Daisy August 1, 2008 at 8:53 PM  

There's a huge walnut that hangs over my boyfriend's backyard. It's left layers of sticky film on anything underneath it, and he's careful not to put the leaves in the compost - they're pretty bad.

I never knew that sunflowers were so unsociable! I'm with you though... they're gorgeous enough to be tolerated anyway!

Greg W August 2, 2008 at 7:41 AM  

mrbrownthumb, I should have mentioned that the photo of the sunflower is one of six volunteers from my feeders. This year I decided to let some of them grow just to see what the parents look like. I had no idea they had multiple heads. This one has 24 heads on it!

Anyway, I’m looking forward to what Dr. Weston comes up with regarding natural weed control. The more ‘effective’ natural controls we have the less dependant upon synthetic controls we can become. And that is a good thing for everyone.

I had not heard of Jade sunflower, I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for stopping by.

Greg W August 2, 2008 at 7:44 AM  

Daisy, those walnut trees can be real nasty for anything growing around them, as you have learned. I have seen that sticky mess and it is not pleasant.

Sunflowers will always hold a special place in my yard, however, after learning of their bad ‘killer instinct’ I may have to start segregating them from now on.

Oh, so much for equality.

Kate August 4, 2008 at 2:47 PM  

Do you know how long this effect lasts for, Greg? I grow sunflowers everywhere but I think all the seeds get eaten by the birds but if it is just the husks then this could explain some things in my garden.

Greg W August 5, 2008 at 8:54 AM  

Hi Kate, sorry but I haven't found any info on how long the effects last but I did find something on Juglone, this toxin that Black Walnut excretes. It seems that if you give plenty of water, fertilizer and sunlight to the affected plants the effects can be counteracted and after one season the soil should be free of it.

Sorry I couldn't be more specific.

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