Most gardeners tend to think of spring when wildflowers are mentioned, however, I think Mother Nature's best show is in the fall.
We're familiar with the large, showy sunflowers with heads the size of dinner plates, but there's also a number of 'wild cousins' that are noteworthy too. They pop up in unexpected places in meadows and at the edge of wooded areas about this time and are an excellent source of nectar and pollen for our insect friends. A common little plant in my area is Helianthus divaricatus, or woodland sunflower. While it seems happy enough in sunny meadows, this North American native wildflower has the distinction of also blooming well in shady spots as well. The arching stems are generally between 2 and 6 feet tall and the flowers are born on small branchlets right at the top.
The woodland sunflower, or rough sunflower is a perennial plant that tends to form loose colonies where it is happy and it is happy just about anywhere except wet, swampy conditions. The opposite leaves have a rough, sandpapery feel about them that Bambi finds distasteful, so if you are plagued by deer, this would be a good choice for a prairie garden. Deer may occasionally nibble, but seldom make a meal from this rough-textured plant. They do tend to grow long and lanky though, so trimming them back in early summer might result in a more compact plant. However, I find the graceful stems attractive and the nodding flowers bright and cheerful. Plant at the back of your border and let the stems peek through here and there. Asters, coreopsis and various ornamental grasses make good companions.
Helianthus divaricatus spreads by both seeds and underground rhizomes, making it a good choice for stabilizing steep banks and hard to mow areas. The roots tend to form an underground net that prevents soil from washing away. This root system needs room to grow, so if you have a small garden, make sure you give these plants ample room at the back of your property. Once this little sunflower is established, it is quite drought-resistant, making it ideal for water-wise gardens. It has few pests or diseases that plague it, so tends to be a care-free garden resident.
Honeybees benefit from the nectar and pollen and it is a host plant for checkerspot and painted lady butterflies. The seeds are an important food source for birds and small mammals, while the tall stems provide shelter and cover.
The sunflower was also an important plant to the ancient Native Americans and it is the only major food crop to have originated in what is now the Lower 48 states. Evidence shows that sunflowers were cultivated and used for food, oil, medicine and dye for over 3000 years.
Just like its larger cousin, the little woodland sunflower turns its face toward the sun as it travels across the sky each day and while the flowers may be smaller, they do tend to shine like jewels against the leaves of shade-loving neighbors.