For almost two decades, Woodland sunflower expert Tom Heaton has searched for this one perfect bloom: a pure white sunflower.
Now, he has two white sunflower varieties ready for introduction to the world – and these strikingly beautiful wonders could become the next big thing in the cut-flower industry.
“White is a revolutionary color in the sunflower world, really a milestone in the history of sunflower,” Heaton said. “Forever going forward, there will be white sunflower available to gardeners and cut-flower producers. We think it will have a great impact in the flower world.”
Heaton, the world’s leading hybridizer of ornamental sunflowers, knows a potential star when he sees it. His two companies – NuFlowers and Sunflower Selections – have created and marketed dozens of eye-catching varieties now commonly available to florists, commercial growers and home gardeners.
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But a white sunflower is a real breakthrough.
“A white sunflower is unique,” he said. “We’re the only people in the world that has it. Nobody else has anything like it.”
His new trademarked varieties are aptly named ProCut White Nite and ProCut White Lite. Their difference is in their centers; White Nite has a near-black center while White Lite’s center ranges from light green to creamy pale yellow. Starting in November, they’ll be available directly from SunflowerSelections.com as well as affiliated seed companies.
Both varieties produce one large 8-inch bloom on a strong 5-foot stalk.
“ProCut White Nite is the one we have the most volume of seeds,” Heaton said. “ProCut White Lite has limited seed supply and will have larger volumes after summer 2018.”
Traditionally golden yellow with dark centers, sunflowers have become a favorite cut flower. Quick and easy to produce (and ship), these simple blooms reach maturity in 50 to 60 days. In the U.S., more than 500 million stems are sold annually as cut flowers.
Available fresh from Valentine’s Day to Christmas, sunflowers are cheaper to produce than other popular cut flowers such as dahlias or chrysanthemums, but their yellow petals and black centers tend to limit their use to fall holidays or summer bouquets.
White sunflowers broaden their overall appeal, Heaton noted. They’re appropriate for spring holidays such as Easter or Mother’s Day. They’d be perfect for weddings and bridal showers.
And white petals can accept flower dye, he added. Those big petals could be tinted pink, lavender, red, green or blue.
This big difference did not come easy, Heaton noted.
At Yolo County farms, Heaton planted millions of sunflowers, crossing promising prospects for paler petals. A sunflower hybridizer for 40 years, he managed to isolate the key – a naturally occurring color variant. He then introduced that trait into his breeding program, crossing it with plants with different heights and petal shapes.
“The major hurdle was combining that color with petal quality,” he noted. “Sunflowers have all these different traits. The white (color) might look good, but the plant also had to have acceptable flower quality. We’re really creating these for the cut-flower industry.”
Heaton thought he had his rare white winner six years ago with a sunflower he named Coconut Ice. But, he discovered, Coconut Ice couldn’t reliably produce seed in hot weather.
“The first year, it was a good seed producer,” Heaton said. “But the next two years, it failed. Out of 30 acres, I got one bag of seed. I lost thousands of dollars. It turned out Coconut Ice was weather sensitive; I couldn’t bring it to market.”
Other attempts at white sunflowers had another huge challenge: Bees – necessary for pollination and seed production – wouldn’t touch them.
“Does it pollinate?” Heaton said. “Can you produce seed and put it on the market in a reliable way? Those are important questions. Bees don’t see color the way we do. We had to find a white sunflower they would like, too.”
Happy in hot weather, both White Nite and White Lite attract bees just fine, too, he added. “They produce good nectar. If there’s nothing else flowering, bees will go for it.”
Before their release, Heaton sent sample seeds to about 100 volunteer growers nationwide through the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Rave reviews confirmed his own observations.
“I waited a long time to get a white sunflower that worked,” he said. “I finally found the right combination.”