The Sunflower Tribe
by Carolyn Aita
Looking out on a frozen January garden, I watch a white breasted nuthatch and a dark eyed junco have a conversation over some birdseed (A). The first arrivals of this year’s garden catalogs spread out before me are both delighting and confusing. So much to choose from! Well, I like to watch pollinators in action (during their flight season, not now) and with this in mind, I look for descriptions in these catalogs that include the symbol of a butterfly or bee below the plant picture. I notice that often these adorable symbols are found under the pictures of plants with daisy-like flowers, that is, a ring of petals surrounding central (sort of) flat disc. These plants are heliantheae! What? In ordinary speech, they are members of the sunflower tribe.
Botanically speaking, a tribe is a plant group above genus and below family. Setting aside this tidbit for Trivia night at the tavern, let’s consider some common garden perennials in the sunflower tribe that pollinators love, namely, “eyed” susans, coneflowers, and (yes, perennial!) sunflowers. These plants have composite flowerheads made up of many small flowers of two types: ray flowers and disc flowers (B). The petals are part of the ray flowers. The eye or cone is made up of disc flowers. Like traffic controllers in a busy airport, the petals direct an incoming pollinator to the disc flowers where nectar and pollen are stored. (Fascinating! See Heather Holm at www.PollinatorsNativePlants.com for a bee’s eye view of landing on a composite flower). In addition to being laden with easily accessible goodies, the central disc is physically sturdy and provides a firm resting place for pollinators between snacking.
Native susans, cones, and perennial suns are abundant in our garden from early summer to the frost. (Aside: I’m giving the Latin name of each plant below because they all have multiple English names. Check the Latin name when you order from a catalog or in the nursery and you’ll get the plant you want.) Pale Purple Coneflowers (Echinacia pallida) and Ox-eye Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) greet the summer solstice. By midsummer, stands of Purple Coneflowers (Echinacia purpurea) and Orange Coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida) support a myriad of pollinators including a Common Eastern bumble bee with full pollen baskets on its hind legs (B) and a lovely American Lady butterfly (C). Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) mingle with switchgrass in our prairie plantings. Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), technically biennials but mega self-seeders, volunteer prolifically on any open ground (D). Late blooming Sweet Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) stand over four feet and provide bright yellow-orange late season color.
It’s not only the sunny spots that get the attention of the sunflower tribe. Volunteers from a stand of Woodland Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) planted at the edge of a grove of uplimbed oaks and hickories fill in the bare earth in the light shade under the trees’ high canopy. Green-eyed Coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) thrive under the canopy of black walnut trees (!) in the moist earth at our lakeshore (E). And after the flight season is over and pollinators are gone, the sunflower tribe provides food for winter birds. Look at this American Tree Sparrow on top of a snowbank eating the seeds of our Orange Coneflowers (F).
Happy New Year to all of you, gentle Readers, and a wish for joy and contentment from our family to yours and all you hold dear.
Photos by Mike and Carolyn Aita