In the Hill Country and in yards across Central Texas, the sunflower has become an expected summer sight for people who live here. With its beautiful striking gold petals and plants that can grow over the tops of fences, it’s sure to have stopped you in your tracks at some point during the season. We know these plants well, but why are they growing here and why do farmers plant them? Sunflowers make great host plants!
What’s a host plant?
Host plants are usually native plants, growing in the same season as the bugs in the area that are attracted to them. Anything from bees and wasps to pests like stink bugs and harlequin beetles make these plants home. Due to their size, sunflowers make a great shady place, especially in the height of summer heat when other plants have died off. Many wasps are also attracted to this plant to make a home with quick access to food. Ants are even attracted to sunflowers and will farm the sap and aphid colonies on them. Ants get their water from aphids when there is no rain and will actively farm and care for aphids. If you don’t have the host plant, they might go for your vegetable garden instead!
What’s attracted to sunflowers?
Bees – help pollinate all crops
Wasps – eat pest bugs
Ladybugs – eat aphids & pest larva
Birds – naturally control a wide range of bug populations
Stink Bugs – all kinds
Weevils – all kinds
Ants – who also farm aphids
Beetles – wide range of beetle species who eat plant matter
With all these beneficial bugs coming to the area, one of the biggest pest population destroyers is actually the wild birds. There have been several studies, like this one from the University of Florida, indicating that birds in the garden or on the farm substantially cut populations and are an effective method of pest control.
Even more benefits of growing sunflowers!
Not only are sunflowers great host plants, but they’re also great companion plants. Companion plants are those that grow well together and help support one another through structure, nutrients, pest repellant, or beneficial bug attractor. Since sunflowers grow so big, tall, and strong many vining plants can use them for support. Squash, cucumbers, nasturtiums, beans, and tomatoes all do really well grown with sunflowers as their support. Even if plants don’t specifically grow well with sunflowers, I always recommend growing them somewhere on your property so they can be a host plant instead of a companion plant.
Another massive benefit to growing sunflowers is their soil cleansing power. Sunflowers have the amazing ability to pull contaminates out of the soil, a process known as “phytoremediation.” This term is defined as a process that uses plants to remove, stabilize, transfer. or destroy contaminates in the soil, water, or air. How cool that such a beautiful flower has the capability to help restore soil! Read more about it in the Farmers’ Almanac blog. If and when you use sunflowers as a cleaning agent, make sure to cut the above ground parts after it’s finished flowering and dispose of them or burn them. Be careful of burning plant matter when there is a known history of heavy contaminates, you don’t want to breathe in that smoke.
Sunflowers help you grow more! Whether you are trying to grow food, clean the soil, or add plant and bug diversity to your space, sunflowers are a strong and extremely willing supporter who will make it through the hot months in our high Texas heat.
|By Kylie Treekin
Farm Manager at Whisper Valley and practitioner of permaculture and regenerative farming systems. You can find me with my hands in the dirt, constantly observing, learning, and growing a better future for the Earth and its people.