Sunflowers: The Ultimate Pollinator Magnet For Your Garden

bee in the center of sunflower with pollen

If you’re looking for a way to attract pollinators to your garden, look no further than the sunflower. Sunflowers are not only beautiful to look at and make excellent cut flowers, but they also play an essential role in attracting bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects.

There are many different varieties of sunflowers available, so you can choose the ones that will work best with your garden, from shorter varieties to towering giants. Each type will be of particular interest to different pollinators, so tailor your sunflower selection to the kind of pollinators you want to attract.

Why are sunflowers so attractive to pollinators?

Sunflowers’ large, brightly-colored, cheerful blooms are not just appealing to gardeners and flower enthusiasts, but they are some of the best flowers to plant if you want to attract pollinators. 

Rich in nectar and pollen, sunflowers provide an excellent source of nutrition for native pollinator species. When left to go to seed, they serve as a protein-rich food source for migrating bird populations. 

Not only that, but their foliage is a preferred food source for many beneficial insects and native caterpillars, while their broad, flat blooms make easy landing pads for hungry butterflies. 

With vibrantly colored flowers perched high on tall stems, sunflowers are easy for pollinators and birds to spot from a distance, especially when planted in groups. 

To maximize pollinator populations in your garden, planting sunflowers alongside other pollinator-friendly plants that bloom earlier and later in the season, such as snapdragons and cosmos, will ensure butterflies, bees, and birds visit your garden all season long. 

For an even more significant impact, try adding a birdbath or other water feature near your sunflower patch to provide a water source for visiting pollinators.

Pollenless vs. open-pollinated sunflowers

When choosing sunflower varieties, one thing to be mindful of is that some sunflowers produce pollen while others are pollenless.

Pollenless sunflowers are hybrids that have been developed mainly for cut flowers. Without pollen, these varieties last longer when cut for flower arrangements and don’t drop pollen on surfaces where the display sits.

bee on pollenless sunflower
This sunflower has a brown center without any yellow pollen showing, but it still has a bee enjoying the nectar.

Are pollenless sunflowers good for bees and other pollinators?

Pollenless sunflowers still produce nectar, which is beneficial to bees and other pollinators in your garden. The bright yellow and gold flowers of pollenless sunflowers will also attract pollinators just as well as sunflowers with pollen-covered centers.

If you want to grow pollenless sunflowers for your cut flower garden, you may also want to plant other flowers with a higher pollen yield to provide a more robust food source for your pollinator visitors. 

Interplanting pollenless varieties with heirloom sunflowers can also encourage cross-pollination, which will cause pollenless sunflowers to produce seeds for migrating birds.

What pollinators do sunflowers attract?

When planting your cut flower garden, it can be helpful to know what pollinators are attracted to sunflowers so you can have a better idea of what species to keep a lookout for this growing season. 

Not only will you be better able to identify them when they show up, but if you’re interested in luring in a particular type of pollinator, you can interplant specific plants around your sunflower patch to cater to specific pollinator varieties.

Honeybees

One of the best-beloved pollinators around, honeybees are tireless little workers that excel at pollinating and have a particular penchant for sunflowers. 

Bees most readily perceive the colors blue and yellow, so sunflowers are quick to draw their attention and UV patterning on sunflower blooms, while not visible to human eyes, forms a bullseye of sorts that bees cannot resist. 

Bees utilize the protein-rich pollen and sugary nectar from sunflowers to feed their young larvae. They also store it as a food source to help them survive the long winter months. 

Even more impressive, studies have found that sunflower pollen can boost bees’ immune systems, which is particularly important today when native bee populations are on the decline.

Solitary bees

While honeybees often get most of the attention, other solitary bees, such as bumblebees and carpenter bees, are also drawn in by sunflowers’ rich pollen and nectar. 

The large, flat surfaces of sunflower blooms are especially well-suited to the large wingspan of carpenter bees, who cannot easily fit into tighter flower buds.

Hoverflies

Hoverflies resemble small bees with widely-spaced wings and black and yellow striped bodies and are second only to bees when it comes to being efficient pollinators. 

Hoverflies are most attracted to yellow, and sunflowers’ bright color is sure to draw them in. They feed primarily on nectar, so hoverflies will benefit from both pollenless and traditional sunflower varieties. 

Additionally, as hoverflies excel at eating aphid populations, companion planting sunflowers near vulnerable plants, such as roses, can help keep aphids in check.

Butterflies

Primarily attracted to the colors yellow, orange, red, pink, and purple, butterflies are sure to seek out sunflower patches, even if you plant darker sunflower varieties, such as Autumn Beauty. 

The large, flat wingspan of butterflies can make foraging difficult for these nectar-lovers; however, the open blooms of sunflowers serve as excellent landing pads allowing butterflies to feed with ease.

Native butterflies, such as the painted lady butterfly, frequently lay their eggs on sunflowers’ large foliage, where emerging caterpillars will find a ready and nutritious food source.

Birds

Birds can’t resist sunflowers’ protein-packed seeds when they emerge in autumn. Sunflower seeds are a favorite among chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, jays, and more. They provide a much-needed food source, particularly for migrating birds who need nutrient-rich seeds to fuel their long migrations. 

To ensure a steady food source for wintering birds, leave some sunflower heads on the plants when they begin to dry and mature in late summer and early autumn.

Beneficial insects

As the name suggests, beneficial insects refer to insects that can help control garden pests that feed on vegetable gardens and flowers. 

While countless beneficial insects are drawn to sunflowers, sunflowers are especially alluring to lacewings, ladybugs, big-eyed bugs, and parasitoid wasps.

ladybugs on closed sunflower
Maybe these ladybugs will look for an aphid snack after they wake up from their nap.

These insects feed on pests such as aphids, cutworms, hornworms, and more, helping to protect your garden against unwanted pests.

There are many different ways you can use sunflowers in your cut flower garden to attract pollinators. You can plant them in large clusters to provide ample space for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators to land and feed on the n

Because they are known to attract beneficial insects, companion planting your sunflowers near vulnerable plants or vegetable garden beds can help naturally control garden pests, such as aphids, mealybugs, leafhoppers, and spider mites, that feed on flowers and vegetation.

Best sunflowers varieties for pollinators

Many different types of sunflowers are well-suited for pollinator gardens, including some single-stemmed varieties and some branching varieties. 

Branching sunflowers will produce multiple stems, providing a large and varied flower display. They also tend to bloom for numerous weeks as the early blooms fade and new ones take their place.

Single stem sunflowers, on the other hand, produce a single bloom. Once that bloom is spent, the plant won’t grow anymore, so you’ll need to replant to provide a continuous supply of sunflowers throughout the season. These are the best option if you want to cut some sunflower stems for bouquets.

When choosing varieties, another thing to keep in mind is the days to maturity. From planting seeds to the first flower opening, sunflowers take anywhere from 60-120 days to mature, depending on the variety.

Choose a few varieties with different days to maturity, so you have a more extended period with sunflower blooms, rather than having everything blooming at once, then nothing after a week of abundance.

Finally, some varieties bloom later in the season than others. This can be particularly helpful for pollinators stocking up for the fall or birds looking for seeds along their migratory paths. As you shop for seeds, note which varieties are labeled “early bloomers” and “late bloomers” and include some of both types.

Traditional branching sunflowers

  • Lemon Queen 

A traditional, branching sunflower with bright yellow petals surrounding dark brown centers, Lemon Queen sunflowers are a hit with pollinators, including honeybees, bumblebees, and hoverflies. Growing 6 to 10 feet tall, Lemon Queen is one of the last sunflowers to bloom, with flowers appearing in late summer to fall.

  • Henry Wilde

Excellent for cut flower arrangements, this classic branching sunflower boasts deep yellow petals and a brown center. Growing 6 to 10 feet tall, Henry Wilde looks particularly fetching when planted along garden fences.

  • Autumn Beauty

Autumn Beauty is a bold choice for those of us who prefer darker-toned sunflowers with petals appearing in dark orange, bronze, and burgundy. A vigorous grower, this branching sunflower grows 5 to 8 feet tall, and its pollen-rich center is a perfect foraging source for hungry bees.

  • Evening Sun

Another darker-toned sunflower, Evening Sun blooms are rust, bronze, and burgundy, with many bi-colored flowers. This branching sunflower will reach 6-8 feet tall and please pollinators and humans alike.

  • Sonja

A newer variety, Sonja is a petite sunflower type, growing only 3 feet tall, that works particularly well in small spaces and backyard patios. With golden yellow blooms, this branching sunflower is excellent for cut flower arrangements and popular with pollinators too.

Single-stemmed, pollenless sunflowers that are great for cutting

  • ProCut Orange

A traditional, single-stemmed sunflower, ProCut Orange has golden-yellow petals around a dark central disk. One of the best sunflowers for cut flower arrangements, this variety grows 6-7 feet tall with large, pollenless blooms that won’t make a mess indoors.

  • ProCut White Lite

A unique-looking sunflower, ProCut White Lite has pale, cream-colored petals around a light golden center. White Lite grows 5-6 feet tall, and its pollenless blooms are ideal for florist arrangements and make sophisticated additions to wedding bouquets.

  • ProCut Bicolor

ProCut Bicolor has two-toned petals with mahogany centers terminating in golden-yellow tips. A pollenless, single-stemmed sunflower, this sunflower grows 5-6 feet tall and lends an autumnal look to floral displays.

  • Sunrich Gold

Resembling the famous sunflowers of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, Sunrich Gold has golden-yellow petals framing cheery, light green centers. These pollenless, uniform blooms grow 4-5 feet tall and work great in cut flower gardens. They are particularly well-suited for succession planting with the ProCut sunflower series.

  • Sunrich Yellow

Another good choice for cut flower gardens, Sunrich Yellow closely resembles Sunrich gold; however, it has a dark brown central disk. With symmetrical pollenless blooms on a single stem, Sunrich Yellow is one of the most popular sunflower varieties among commercial growers.

Whether growing sunflowers as cut flowers or just as an element in your garden design, they are a fantastic addition to any space and will bring beauty and color all season long.

For even more about attracting pollinators to your garden, be sure to check out 9 Pollinator-Friendly Cut Flowers For Your Garden.

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