The yellow or gold daisy-like flowers of our native ox-eye sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) shine for weeks on end, lighting up gardens and prairies June through September.
Sometimes called false sunflowers, these accommodating plants thrive in any soil, clay or sand, wet or dry. They bloom well in full sun as well as in the partial shade at the woodland edge.
Ox-eye sunflower blossoms attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. They also make great cut flowers. Deer don't bother these plants, but — in my experience — rabbits do. Although winter-hardy throughout the Midwest, false sunflowers tend to be short-lived. That's why I'm grateful that they readily reseed themselves around, with new volunteers always ready to replace plants that die or are eaten to the ground by hungry bunnies.
False sunflowers typically grow 3 to 6 feet tall. But you can also buy named varieties that are more compact. And while most produce yellow blossoms on green-leafed plants, there are also some exciting selections that offer fun and colorful variations.
When we moved to the city, I brought with me from my country garden a small division of a variegated variety called Loraine Sunshine. Growing about 30 inches tall, it boasts white leaves with green veins that look handsome throughout the growing season, whether the plant is in flower or not. A variegated variety named Sunburst is similar.
The first named variety of oxeye sunflower I planted was one called Summer Sun. It's still one of the best, known for its strong stems, consistent 3-foot height and 3-inch, semi-double, gold blossoms.
A new ox-eye sunflower from Proven Winners is Tuscan Gold, which has a compact, upright shape 24 to 32 inches tall, large yellow flowers with gold centers, and built-in resistance to powdery mildew.
Some exciting color breakthroughs are now available, thanks to Jelitto Perennial Seeds. First came an ox-eye sunflower named Burning Hearts, which has golden-yellow flowers with a red eye, plus striking purple foliage in spring. The newest introduction is Bleeding Hearts, with bright orange flowers. (It's the first oxeye sunflower without any yellow.) In spring, Bleeding Hearts shows off with mahogany-colored foliage and purple-black stems. I don't have Bleeding Hearts yet but it's on my wish list.
Burning Hearts and Bleeding Hearts both have an erect, sturdy habit and grow about 45 to 50 inches tall.
Ox-eye sunflowers blend beautifully with native prairie grasses. Gayfeathers (Liatris) also make good companions.