August Welcomes the Sunflower

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So much has been different about the summer of 2020 – our health, our economy, our daily lives.  Amid all the disruption, it’s always helpful to lean on the comforts of nature.  And, due to shifting weather – endless 90 degree temperatures and high humidity, some of nature’s bounty is arriving ahead of schedule.

Flowers that normally bloom in August have started popping out in mid-July.  The beautiful pinks and purples of the Crape Myrtle trees suddenly are in full bloom.  Vegetables ripened early, flooding local farmer’s markets and fruit stands with a wide array of summer produce.  And the summer standby, the sunflower, began spreading its sunshine yellow colors weeks before its usual showy August arrival.

A very unique flower
Sunflowers (Helianthus) are native to the Americas and are almost indestructible plants.  Most of the 70 different species grow very tall with the solid stalk making them quite hard to chop down at the end of the season. Sunflowers do well in the heat and with little water because the roots are long and deep so they can reach water sources other plants cannot. But they can wreak havoc in the compost pile because they take forever to break down.

Who doesn’t think summer when they see the large round sunny yellow flowers waving in the summer breeze?  Interestingly, sunflowers are the only flower that actually has the word flower as part of its name.  The plants also have a very unique trait called heliotropism.  When the plant puts out its first buds, the buds face the sun at all times throughout the day.  The bud begins to face east with

the rising sun, and ends up facing west by the end of the day.  It is the only flower to do this.  By the time the bud matures into a full flower, hormones in the plant leave the flower facing east.

While there are some species of sunflowers that are perennials, most of the sunflowers we see are annual.  They may self-germinate from dropped seeds if you leave the heads on the plants throughout the winter. The perennial Maximillian sunflower features small blooms in late summer and early fall.  It takes 80 to 120 days for a sunflower to produce its giant flowers.

The field of sunflowers is grown for conservation purposes but as become a favorite tourist spot in the Washington area in August.

Fields of Sunflowers
While sunflowers are popular in the summer markets and in August flower arrangements, the sunflowers are incredibly beautiful when they are found in fields, row after row of the sunny plants waving in the wind.  In our area, the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area, a part of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, puts on a powerful sunflower display.  Each spring, they plant four to five giant fields of sunflowers in perfect rows.  This summer display of sunflowers have become a favorite local summer day trip.  It is extremely popular with photographers often featuring young ladies dressed up in their summer best.  Seeing row after row of the flowers is simply awe-inspiring even on a hot day.

While the sunflowers definitely make McKee-Beshers a tourist destination spot in August, the real reason the wildlife staff plants the flowers each spring is as a food source primarily for mourning doves as part of the department’s conservation programs including hunting.  In the fall season, beginning in September through early January, mourning doves are hunted in the fields.

Visitors are welcomed at the site, and signage is good at the parking lots to direct you to the different fields.  This year the seeds were planted on May 13th. Since the plants are basically a crop, they are planted in very precise rows leaving just enough room for those that want the experience to walk through the fields.

There is plenty of room in the fields to social distance, although the parking lots can be a bit crowded on the weekend.  Signs remind visitors that the flowers are there for the wildlife, and visitors must not damage, disturb, or pick the sunflowers.  Also important to know before going is there are no public facilities at the site, so no bathrooms, water, or staff to direct you.

McKee- Beshers is located in Poolesville, Maryland, and is about an hour drive from the Hill.  The easiest route is up the George Washington Parkway, onto the

Capitol Beltway and take Exit 39 (River Road) west to Potomac.  It is about 12 miles out on River Road, followed by a quick turn on Seneca Road.  For those unfamiliar with this area, it is also full of large mansions and golf courses.  Directions are available at the website, https://dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/publiclands/central/mckeebeshers.aspx

This area was acquired through the Open Space Funding for Maryland’s State and local parks and conservation areas.  This summer, Congress is expected to pass, and the President has said he will sign into law, the Great American Outdoors Act.  This legislation reinstates the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helped Maryland with funding for the wildlife area.  This is wonderful news for future gardens and conservation areas. 

A bouquet of wildflowers and sunflowers make a fun summer centerpiece. You can pick your own at the Valley View Acres second annual Sunflower Festival this month.

Pick Your Own
Finally, if you would like another way to enjoy 4 acres of sunflowers, the Valley View Acres Farm at 4005 Valley View Road in Middleton, Maryland is hosting its second annual Sunflower Festival.  There is a $3 admission fee, children under five years get in free.  You can pick your own sunflowers and wildflowers to take home.  The farm charges $1 a stem for sunflowers and

$3 for a bunch of wildflowers.  The festival has food, drinks, and crafts.  The festival happens on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from July 18th through August 16th.  Arrive between 10 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.  For more information, see the website, http://www.valleyviewacresmd.com

Local farmers markets, including Eastern Market and the Tuesday Amish market, also are selling sunflowers at $1 a stem.  The great thing about sunflowers is that they last days longer than other cut flowers if you change the water and cut the stems daily. It is your chance to bring this summer treasure right into your home.

Rindy O’Brien was thrilled to finally visit the sunflower fields after hearing about its beauty for years. Enjoy. Contact: Rindy at [email protected]