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Sunflowers are among the most useful flowers in the garden. Not only are they cheerful and stalwart, they’re also capable of supporting a huge diversity of insects. Their pollen and nectar is readily accessible to hundreds of species of bees, beetles, butterflies, flies, and many other pollinators and beneficial insects. Avoid pollenless varieties if possible because their flowers can’t provide the protein-rich pollen many predatory beneficial insects need. Sunflowers also produce extra-floral nectar (EFN) from glands on the undersides of their leaves.
EFN is an important source of carbohydrates for many insects, including numerous pest-munching beneficials who, in exchange for this sugar-rich nectar, help protect the sunflower from pests. Because sunflowers are frost sensitive, it is best to wait to start seeds in the garden until after the danger of frost has passed. Protect young seedlings from slugs with a ring of copper tape or organic iron phosphate-based slug baits.
Sunflowers come in a tremendous range of petal colors and plant forms. Don’t be afraid to grow several types together. The diversity of floral structure, color, and stature is both beautiful and helpful to the insect world.