Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

Everyone likes sunflowers, well the blooms, at least. But annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) have a big flaw in that they don’t flower for long and the plants are coarse, at best. Plant breeders have done their best to make Eliza Doolittle into a lady but, lovely though her smile is, her basic habit and vulgar deportment cannot help to give the game away.

This year the T&M-bred, sterile, ‘Sunbelievable’s went a long way to making sunflowers good garden plants with, for the first time, a plant suitable for a border or a patio pot. Attractive flowers, a really well branched habit and a very long flowering season have been promised and claimed before but here we are, at long last, with a sunflower that is attractive all round.

Of course H. annuus is not the only sunflower and there are lots of perennial kinds. The best-loved of all perennial helianthus, H. tuberosus, the Jerusalem artichoke is grown for the tubers that are dug up in autumn and the flowers are elegant yellow sunflowers. Globe artichokes are European in origin and Jerusalem artichokes are American and the ‘Jerusalem’ bit comes from ‘girasole’ which means sunflower in Italian.

Jerusalem artichokes are famous for causing flatulence. This is because of the oligosaccharide sugars they contain. It is a great shame because I enjoy their taste and they are stupidly easy to grow. If you continue to eat them your gut flora adapts so they are apparently less embarrassing.

I suspect that most helianthus are, in some part, edible and seed packets now often proclaim that the flower buds of common sunflowers are edible – I wonder if anyone has tried?

But back to what I wanted to mention some paragraphs ago. Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, a plant that is grown solely for ornamental purposes. This is an old, traditional sort of herbaceous plant. It is tall, bulky and vigorous, quickly forming large clumps. It is hardy, not fussy about soil and needs division every few years to maintain vigour. It will usually reach about 1.5m in height but if replanted into fresh soil, with a spring in its step it will easily reach 2m, then becoming more restrained as the competition of the many shoots cause the stems to be less lofty.

It is supposed to be a hybrid of H. pauciflorus var. subrhomboideus and H. tuberosus and this hybrid should be called H. x laetiflorus. I have seen it called H. microcephalus and small wood sunflower. I think just ‘Lemon Queen’ is best!

The stems are strong and rarely need staking and then, from early September onwards, a mass of pale yellow flowers open. This is a serious border plant and although it is often recommended for cutting, it has one serious problem. The stems branch near the top and as each flower opens and fades, new buds develop from sideshoots lower on the stem. It means that if you cut a stem it will always have far more closed buds and dead flowers than open blooms. A lot of cutting away and housekeeping means you can get a decent bunch but it is not ideal. But for the garden it is fine. If you do intend cutting stems for flowers later I think this is a serious contender for the ‘Chelsea chop’ – taking out the growth tips in late May so the plant branches from much lower.

I like the plant for its simplicity and ease. It also reminds me of my grandparents’ garden where a helianthus (not sure which) filled dusty, urban flower beds, providing cover for ‘Toddy’ the tortoise and was always in bloom when we visited for August Bank Holiday.

The lower half of the plant does not carry flowers so this is a plant for the back of the border. Typical companions are late-flowering asters, chrysanthemums and dahlias although the ubiquitous Verbena bonariensis would work and billowing miscanthus contrast nicely with the rather blocky look of the helianthus.

Of course, being a tall plant, garden centres don’t stock this, or other tall helianthus such as ‘Monarch’ * so you will have to go to a specialist. This is what I would call my sane choice among helianthus. A less sensible plant is H. salicifolius which I had many moons ago. I admired it for the long narrow leaves that hang from the stems reminding me of the ‘trees’ I used to make as a child from rolled-up newspaper that was torn half-way down its length and then extended as far as one dare before it collapsed. The flowers come very late and they are small, bright gold and on stems rather too short so it gives a congested look quite out of place on a plant that hurls its long stems, up to 3m in length, in all directions. Unkempt is a kind description. But I loved it, until surrounding shrubs greedily filled the ground and the wandering underground parts of the helianthus could not compete and one year it was gone. It is sad when you lose a plant but the grief is shortlived when it provides room for other flings.

*’Monarch’ was planted in the garden last year and I am happy to say that it has survived winter well. What is not so good is that it has sprung up more than a metre away from where I planted it! ‘Lemon Queen’ is clump-forming and not so badly behaved.

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10 Comments on “Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’”

  1. derrickjknight
    September 27, 2019 at 10:12 am #

    I thought these were a kind of rudbeckia unit the Head Gardener enlightened me

  2. Meriel
    September 29, 2019 at 11:46 am #

    My ‘Lemon Queen’ is excelling itself this year. I love it although I did plant it too far forward and will have to move and take the opportunity to divide. I would love more of it in other parts of the garden with no flowers just now.

  3. tonytomeo
    October 3, 2019 at 3:22 am #

    Why do so many Europeans put such effort into making irrelevant reference to President Trump?

    • thebikinggardener
      October 14, 2019 at 7:27 pm #

      I admit that I seem a bit obsessed. I was going to try to explain about the death of democracy, in the UK, as well as elsewhere, as a result of populism and social media. The UK has an unelected Prime minister careering towards parting with Europe which is the result of a referendum that was a racist decision voted for by the public that were lied to. But I will not go on.
      I am certainly not anti-American. I grew up wanting to be a cowboy, was a teen wanting to be a beach bum, California dreaming, have visited the ‘States many times and met wonderful people, particularly in beautiful Oregon. All I need to say is said by the great man himself…

      ‘As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).’

      That is bloody scary.

      • tonytomeo
        October 14, 2019 at 10:21 pm #

        I still do not understand why there are so many irrelevant references to President Trump. Although such references are perhaps less prevalent in American culture, he is often blamed for so many social problems that he has nothing to do with. He is blamed for destroying the environment, which has been getting destroyed for centuries. He is blamed for racism that has always been a part of American culture. He is blamed for discrimination against the homeless, even though the vast majority of the homeless I work with are quite pleased with what he wants to do for America. The presidency is not a popularity contest. America is in trouble, and we need someone who, even if unable to accomplish much, will at least try to make some potentially difficult improvements. Honestly, I can not stand President Trump. I also believe that he wants to do what is best for America. Regardless, I do not think about him constantly. I have a life, a career, and a long list of other concerns that I would rather devote my attention to. The scary things that President Trump says are less scary if we consider the source, and how American government works.

  4. Mike
    October 15, 2021 at 5:11 pm #

    This year I would like to try taking root cuttings from Lemon Queen, but each one will put up a single tall stem.
    Is there a way of ‘stopping’ it to make it initially bushier.
    I’m wondering what would happen if I cut off the growing shoot – would it die?
    Nurserymen must use a technique to achieve this.

    • thebikinggardener
      October 16, 2021 at 8:47 am #

      I do not think root cuttings are necessary – just divide the clump. I bought a different helianthus this month and it had not been ‘stopped’ – just one tall stem in a pot – not very attractive unless you know what i will do when mature. This year I did ‘stop’ some of my Lemon Queen’ – giving them a rather later than usual Chelsea Chop – in June. I was just experimenting and I cut off the tops of the shoots around the edge of the clumps – which should have made these more bushy and shorter and possibly flowering slightly later. It seems to have worked – the clumps seem to have been more stable because of the shorter, better branched shoots around the taller ones. I took about 30cm off the stems and they did branch out.

  5. Mike
    September 8, 2022 at 1:06 pm #

    Does this variety set deed. Some websites say it does, but somehow I doubt it.

    • thebikinggardener
      September 8, 2022 at 2:36 pm #

      I would not want to put money on it but, as far as I know, it does not set fertile seed. I have grown it for a decade and have never seen a seedling yet and I tend to leave the stems on over winter, at least till the New Year. I would have expected to have seen seedlings if it was fertile.

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