Every garden needs a few easygoing, bulky, self-reliant plants that give a lot of colour for a little work. If they live through winters without fail, stand tall all summer without support, show their bright blossoms later in the season and don't appeal to insects, so much the better.
After the tide of early-season blooms, gardeners are faced with hot, often dry days in late summer and the flower-sparse weeks of fall. This is the time when daisies of all kinds—Rudbeckia, coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), shastas and hardy asters—come to the fore, with bloom times that stretch from mid-July to October. The roadside daisy—as simple as a child's drawing, its white ray petals surrounding a yellow button—stands as an emblem for the whole group; swaying in the breeze and looking up at the sun, they are not called “day's-eyes” for nothing.
All daisies belong to the Asteraceae family, under which broad banner come three, big, easy perennials for late summer and fall: Heliopsis, Helianthus and Helenium. In common parlance they are false sunflowers (or ox eyes), sunflowers and Helen's flower-stalwarts all.
First to bloom, usually by the middle of July, are false sunflowers. The botanical name Heliopsis stems from the Greek God Helios, the sun, and opsis, a Greek suffix relating to sight or appearance. Round, bright and unflinchingly yellow, Heliopsis resemble the sun. False sunflowers are native to North America, ranging from Ontario down into New York State, west to Minnesota and points south. In the wild, they spring up in woodland clearings and scrubby meadows, on dry hillsides and beside streams. In short, they are not fussy about their surroundings.
In tame flower beds, Heliopsis practically raise themselves: up early in spring, pushing strongly to one metre tall or more, their stout stems covered with dark green, heart-shaped leaves. Flowers open in succession over a span of six weeks or longer.
Although named varieties of Heliopsis have been bred, the differences between those and native species are not too dramatic. Still, gardeners, being a discerning (not to say picky) lot, are bound to have favourites. Your basic false sunflower is Heliopsis helianthoides, which simply means “like a sunflower” (Zone 4). Expanding a single ring of ray petals around a central disc, the species is less effective than semi-doubles such as H. h. ‘Patula' or ‘Ballerina', and H. h. ssp. scabra ‘Sommersonne' syn. ‘Summer Sun', with their extra layers of petals. ‘Light of Loddon' is a larger double, while petal-packed doubles such as H. h. ssp. scabra ‘Goldgefieder' syn. ‘Golden Plume' and H. h. ‘Incomparabilis' resemble big, yellow zinnias.
Most false sunflowers are frankly mustard-coloured, flat and unsubtle. Some cultivars are said to lean to orange, a description (as far as I can see) best taken with a grain of salt, though the inner petals of semi-double H. h. ssp. scabra ‘Goldgrünherz' syn. ‘Goldgreenheart' are tinged with green when the flowers first open. But to date, the most impressive false sunflower we've grown is ‘Venus' (H. h. ssp. scabra ‘Venus'); its large, flared, semi-double blossoms are warm-toned-golden yellow with a darker centre—and, like the others, it blooms on and on and lasts well in a vase.
In our garden, new Heliopsis plants spring up from seed, but given their eventual girth, most are weeded out. If needed elsewhere, they are easily lifted and shifted. Lovers of strong colours might situate false sunflowers next to red daylilies, with the calming influence of pale lavender milky bellflowers (Campanula lactiflora, Zone 4) nearby. White phlox and white shasta daisies are good companions, while the muted blues of globe thistles and sea hollies would not be amiss. Spring-planted groups of lavender, cream or scarlet gladioli are useful for a change of form, especially as seasonal fillers in new beds. Planted en masse with ornamental grasses, Heliopsis look as much at home as they would in a meadow.
Photo: A sunflower (Helianthus) cultivar