Sunday, November 13, 2011

Beach sunflower

Beach sunflower, originally uploaded by Elizabeth Smith.

A few months ago, I collected some beach sunflower seedheads and scattered the seed in a flowerpot. So much time went by that I thought surely the seed wasn’t viable, so I set another pot on top of the dirt. Not long after that, I noticed seedlings with distinctive triangular shaped leaves. Finally! They’re a foot high now and growing vigorously, topped off with the bright yellow blooms typical of the sunflower family.

Beach sunflower is Helianthus debilis, a smaller relative of the large and beloved domesticated sunflower we cultivate for seed and beauty. Sunflowers are a member of the huge Aster family, with typical composite flowers – two types of flower structures, ray and disk. Think of the rays of the sun and you’ll know immediately which are which. The disks are tiny flowers that make up the center “button.”

The leaves are an attractive deltoid-to-heart shape, but the plant has rough and prickly stems. The foliage is usually a bright green, but does have a period in late summer when it tends to get weedy and needs some grooming if you are a particular gardener. Although many sources mention beach sunflower as a butterfly attractor, my experience is that it’s especially enjoyed by many types of bees and the occasional skipper.

Because beach sunflower will tolerate a wide range of light and soils, and scoffs at drought, it’s a favorite of mine. I have a partially green thumb and a full-time job, so plants in my care need to be low maintenance! Besides, I also like those cheerful daisy-like blooms and splashes of vivid yellow.

You may have guessed that this species is often found near the beach; in fact, another common name is dune sunflower. It has a high salt tolerance and can be seen growing right out of white sand – it’s roots busy stabilizing shifting dunes. Beach sunflower blooms year-round in South Florida, flowering in the warmer months along the Gulf Coast and into Texas.

I painted this directly in watercolor, first putting in a yellow background wash. After the wash dried, I added the leaves right on top, sketching the outline of the petals with my brush tip. Then I added my pen sketches of the flower and leaf to record a bit more detail. Next, a little more color and some text, and I felt I had a nice balance of science and art. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

You can click on the image above to see it on my Flickr photostream, and you can also see an earlier journal entry on beach sunflower here.