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A Sunflower Summer

It’s been a bright and sunny sunflower summer. I always have sunflowers in my summer garden, presumably gifts from the digestive systems of a variety of birds and their fuzzy-tailed sunflower seed-loving friends, the squirrels. These urban dwelling critters disperse the remains of black-oiled sunflower seeds taken from feeders, dropped unceremoniously to the soil, which then fulfills its role in nurturing growth. This year, the numbers and sizes of sunflowers are over-the-top–literally. Each stalk is huge and there are scads of them. I pulled out quite a few, some when were very small and others as they grew taller, but my pruning shears were no match for the sunflowers determination to define my summer garden.

I kept most of the sunflowers at the center and back of my gardens so they wouldn’t interfere too much with beloved seasonal perennials like creamy Yarrow, Achillea millefolium and cheery Zexmenia, Wedelia acapulucensis var. hispida.

My home sits on the curve of the street and has no sidewalk. Toward my sister-in-law’s (SIL) home (right side of photo), I allowed the sunflowers to reach their sunny faces to the sky and form a floral barrier to the end of the garden.

From the other side, you can see that my SIL also took a pruning shears-off attitude toward the sunflowers in her garden (again, right side of photo). If anything, she may have more of these yellow monsters than we do!

A head-on photo of our two gardens gives you some idea of the statements these sunflowers make!

Also, you’ll notice that the trees look like it’s still we’re still in winter. Arizona Ash trees are the signature trees in both our front gardens and these two trees were badly damaged by February’s winter storm. They will never recover and will never again be fully foliaged trees. The green that you see, along the trunks and the lower branches, is all the trees will ever produce. We’ll be removing our trees later in in autumn. My once shady, west-facing front garden will become a full sun garden and changes are required. Some of the current garden inhabitants won’t like the Texas sun beating down everyday and will be removed; sun-lovers like native grasses and sun-worshipping perennials and shrubs will thrive in the heat and blossom with the blasts of daily sun. I’m sure whatever sunflowers show up next year will be perfectly happy in the new conditions. The end of a tree is a sad, sad thing and the end of two adjacent trees doubly so. I’ll miss their cooling effects, sweet movement of foliage in the wind, and the activities and songs of birds taking refuge in their canopies.

The pollinators have worked the sunflower since opening day in April or May. Honeybees are especially fond of sunflowers and are often covered with pollen after they’ve spent some time nuzzled in the flowers.

As blossoms fade, seeds develop and a new set of feeders show up for that bounty. This male Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria, is one of many birds who’ve enlivened the fading stalks with their busy munching. Feeding alongside the goldfinches are doves (both White-winged and Mourning), House Finches, House Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens. Often when I step outside, there’s a whoosh of wings and scatter of birds as all the eaters take flight.

As the Lesser Goldfinch perches prettily, his belly is yellow; when he bends to eat seeds, his back sports cool white racing stripes!

The sunflowers are definitely the stars of the garden show, but it hasn’t been all sunshine with the sunflowers. For about 18 months, I’ve experienced random outbreaks of itchy, angry red rashes, typically on my legs and arms. I couldn’t figure out what was triggering the annoying and very uncomfortable rashes–until this summer. In conversations with my SIL and other sunflower-growing neighbors, I learned that they were experiencing reactions to the sunflowers, resulting in itchy rashes. I realized that it was the sunflowers that were causing my itchy-scratchies, but it couldn’t only be the sunflowers. The rashes have occurred in autumn and late summer, too, when these particular sunflowers (that come from bird feeder black-oiled sunflower seeds), are done for the year and pulled from the garden. With observation, I then recognized that the native Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata that I grow and which blooms in late summer and fall, also was resulting in my rashes. Both plants are in the Aster, or Asteraceae, family of plants, and I grow quite a few other Aster plants: Purple coneflower, Zexmenia, Gregg’s mistflower, Blue mistflower to name a few. So far, I think I’m safe with most of the Aster family plants, as long as my contact is limited; just brushing against most of them (not the two main culprits) doesn’t to end with me scratching for days and looking for relief. When I have experience outbreaks, I’ve taken Allegra and I have a prescription hydrocortisone cream; both are helpful. Even so, it takes a week or more for the rashes to clear up.

I’ve always been a t-shirt and shorts girl-in-the-garden, but I’m now covering up when I have work to do: long linen pants, some shirts from The Hub, and equestrian gloves which cover my arms to the elbows. And, when it’s hot and sunny, a hat. In the new gardening get-up I’m avoiding new rash outbreaks and it’s good to know that I can still garden, even if I look ridiculous.

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