If you love big, bold sunflowers but avoid them in your garden because of their behemoth size, consider planting their smaller, more genteel cousin, Heliopsis helianthoides. Yes, that’s a mouthful but the name is easy to pronounce (hee-lee-OP-sis hee-lee-an-THOY-deez). If the scientific name causes you to glaze over, just refer to it by its common name, which is false sunflower or oxeye sunflower. Heliopsis has golden yellow blossoms that add some much-needed punch and pizzazz to the arid August garden. This clump-forming perennial is an excellent choice for cutting gardens, cottage gardens and wild flower meadows. Native to the eastern half of the United States and Canada, Heliopsis is drought and heat tolerant once established and will thrive in clay soil. Although it doesn’t mind dry soil, it does appreciate an occasional drink of water during the hottest days of summer to keep it at its healthiest and most productive. It prefers full sun, but will tolerate partial shade as long as it receives at least four to five hours of sun a day.
A number of Heliopsis cultivars are available commercially. ‘Summer Sun’ (also known as ‘Sommersonne’) is one of the easier cultivars to find at our local garden centers. It forms an upright clump three to four feet tall and two to three feet wide. If your garden is too small for a plant this size, try pruning or pinching the stems back in mid-spring. That will delay blooming for a couple of weeks, but it will result in a shorter, sturdier plant. ‘Summer Sun’ produces lots of showy single or semi-double daisy-like orange-yellow flowers from June through September. For lots of visual excitement in the late summer border, pair it with purples and blues or a touch of red. Try purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), gayfeather (Liatris spicata), ‘Lucifer’ Crocosmia, ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia, or ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia. For a really stunning combination, pair it with one of the deeper purple-blue speedwell (Veronica officinalis) cultivars, such as ‘Summer Border Blue’ or ‘Royal Candles.’ Heliopsis also combines very well with ornamental grasses.
‘Summer Nights’ is another readily available cultivar. Similar in size to ‘Summer Sun,’ this cultivar is a little looser looking in habit. It has dark green, bronze-tinged foliage on narrow, dark red stems. Each stem is topped by clusters of golden yellow flowers, some of which display contrasting mahogany red centers. ‘Ballerina’ is a slightly more compact cultivar with a bushy, well-branched habit and semi-double yellow blossoms. It is 24 to 36 inches tall and 18 to 24 inches wide. ‘Golden Plume’ is a double-flowered variety with 2-1/2 inch wide blooms. Cultivars ‘Loraine Sunshine’ and ‘Sunburst’ have variegated cream and green foliage. However, like many variegated plants, the foliage tends to lose its variegated characteristics and may green out as the days grow hotter in this part of Virginia.
Heliopsis is basically a tough, easy-to-grow plant. Once it is established, it will thrive in rocky, sandy or clay soil as long as the soil is well drained. It can handle a range of soil pH, but prefers soil somewhere in the neutral range. Go easy on the organic matter and fertilizer. Overly rich soil can cause leggy stem growth, which could necessitate staking. Deadhead spent blooms to stimulate new buds. That will keep the floral display going into fall. Deadheading also helps prevent self-sowing. Heliopsis can be grown from seed, but a better bet is to divide clumps every three to four years in either spring or fall. This plant has no serious pest or disease problems although it can be susceptible to aphids. Just dispense with them with a sharp spray of water from your garden hose. Powdery mildew and rusts may also affect these plants but generally not to the extent that the problem requires control measures. Heliopsis is a butterfly magnet and bees love it as well. Best of all, deer don’t normally bother it, nor do voles. What’s not to like about this plant?