Perennial Sunflowers for the Home Landscape

Who doesn’t love sunflowers?  Their bright golden, sun-worshipping blooms are symbols of summer.  Each flower head or inflorescence holds hundreds of tiny florets.  The outer florets (called rays) have a colorful petal-like appendage while the inner florets (called discs) rarely have a showy appendage.  They are also noted for their edible seed which is appreciated by a variety of birds and other wildlife (including baseball players) throughout the summer and fall.

close up image of annual sunflower head showing disc flowers surrounded by ray flowers
Disc flowers surrounded by ray flowers in an annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) head 

The genus of sunflowers is Helianthus.  Since “Helios” means sun and “Anthos” means flower – “Helianthus” literally means flower of the sun, or sunflower.  There are over 70 species in the genus Helianthus and the vast majority are native to Central America and North America.  Species range greatly in height, habitat, and flower size.  Yet almost all are noted for their iconic golden daisy flower.  

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish one species from another.  Defining characteristics like number, size, and color of ray and disc florets; number and arrangement of the leaf-like bracts (collectively called the involucre) below the rays; and size, shape and serrations of leaves help determine the identity of different species.  For example, stiff sunflower has a complex arrangement of overlapping bracts in the involucre (called an imbricate involucre), while Western sunflower has a single, simpler layer of bracts for the involucre. 

picture of the back of stiff sunflower with imbricate involucre (overlapping bracts)
Imbricate involucre of stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)

While annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are the species grown for edible seed and oil production, the majority of Helianthus species are perennials.  Many of these species are found growing along roadsides, woodlands, and in prairies.  There are more than 30 species native to the central and eastern US.  These native species can be wonderful additions to home landscapes.  Perennial sunflower species tend to have smaller flower heads and "seed" compared to annual sunflowers, but most perennial species produce many more flower heads due to branching of the flower stalks.  Several of these perennial species are quite large, often reaching more than 6 feet tall.  There are also several species noted for their ability to spread by rhizomes or seed so that they “colonize” an area quickly. 

As with any ornamental plant, there are several hybrid perennial sunflowers available.  ‘Suncatcher’ is a compact hybrid (4 feet tall) with large golden flower heads (4 inches across) that more closely resemble an annual sunflower.  ‘Lemon Queen’ is a popular hybrid with more lemon-yellow flower heads on 4- to 6-foot tall plants. 

Other species that are native to the Midwest and parts of Iowa include: Prairie sunflower (H. petiolaris), hairy sunflower (H. hirsutus), small woodland sunflower (H. mcirocephalus), and Nuttall’s sunflower (H. nuttallii). Yet, these species are not included in the table below as they tend to be infrequent or rare across Iowa.

There are other members of the Aster Family (Asteraceae) that can share the sunflower common name.  While false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia) are members of the Asteraceae family, they are not members of the sunflower (Helianthus) genus.

Perennial Sunflowers for Iowa

Common Name

Scientific Name

Height (feet)

Flower head (diameter)



Ashy Sunflower

H. mollis


1-3” golden yellow

Full sun

Stiff, sessile, gray-green leaves; prefers dry soils; rare in Iowa

Giant Sunflower

H. giganteus


3" golden yellow

Full sun

Many ray flowers (10-25); prefers moist soils; edible roots; rare in Iowa

Jerusalem Artichoke

H. tuberosus


2-4“golden yellow

Full sun

Edible tuber/root; spreads freely; prefers moist soils; frequent across Iowa

Maximilian Sunflower

H. maximiliani


3-6” pale yellow

Full sun

Flowers in leaf axils; folded, gray-green leaves; reseeds freely; prefers moist soils; frequent across Iowa

Pale Woodland Sunflower H. strumosus 1.5-5 3" yellow w/yellow centers Full sun to part shade Leaves with shallow serrations; petiole 1-4cm long; prefers mesic to dry soils; frequent in open woods across Iowa

Sawtooth Sunflower

H. grosseserratus


3-4” gold w/dark centers

Full sun

Long serrated leaves; winged petioles; smooth stems; prefers moist soils; common across Iowa

Stiff Sunflower

H. pauciflorus

(H. rigidus)

3-6 3-4" yellow w/dark centers Full sun Opposite leaves; imbricate involucre; prefers dry soils; common in Iowa

Swamp Sunflower

H. angustifolius*


2-3” yellow w/dark centers

Full sun to part shade

Prefers moist soils; ‘Low Down’ and ‘First Light’ compact cultivars

Ten Petaled Sunflower

H. decapetalus


2-3" yellow with gold dome in center

Full sun to part shade

8-12 petals per flower; prefers moist upland soils in the woods and wooded slopes

Western Sunflower

H. occidentalis


2-3” yellow with gold centers

Full sun

Drought tolerant; basal leaves; not aggressive spreader; mesic to dry soils; common in Eastern Iowa, rare elsewhere in Iowa

Willowleaf Sunflower

H. salicifolius*


Golden yellow with dark centers

Full sun

Narrow, fine leaves; ‘Autumn Gold’ compact cultivar; aggressive spreader; prefers dry soils

Woodland Sunflower

H. divaricatus


2” yellow with golden centers

Full sun to part shade

Many ray flowers (10-25); spreads by rhizomes; prefers dry woods and open spaces; rare in Iowa

* not listed as Iowa native in BONAP

scanned image of pressed Helianthus decapetalus herbarium specimen
Digital scan of herbarium specimen of Helianthus decapetalus
scanned image of pressed Helianthus grossesserratus herbarium specimen
Digital scan of herbarium specimen of Helianthus grosseserratus
scanned image of pressed Helianthus maximiliani herbarium specimen
Digital scan of herbarium specimen of Helianthus maximiliani
scanned image of pressed Helianthus mollis herbarium specimen
Digital scan of herbarium specimen of Helianthus mollis
scanned image of pressed Helianthus pauciflorus herbarium specimen
Digital scan of herbarium specimen of Helianthus pauciflorus


Antonio, T. and S. Masi. 2001. Sunflower Family in the Upper Midwest. Chicago Botanic Garden. Chicago, IL.

Eilers, L.J. and D.M. Roosa. 1994. The Vascular Plants of Iowa.  University of Iowa Press. Iowa City, IA.

Gleason, H.A. and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of NE US and Adjacent Canada. 2nd Ed. New York Botanic Garden. Bronx, NY.

Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2015. Taxonomic Data Center. ( Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2015. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). BONAP Helianthus

Digital scans of herbarium specimens from Ada Hayden Herbarium at Iowa State University

Creative Commons images:

     Helianthus pauciflorus imbricate involucre - "Helianthus pauciflorus (H. rigidus)" by Matt Lavin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

     Helianthus annuus disc and ray flowers - "Sonnenblume (Helianthus annuus)" by blumenbiene is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Last reviewed:
August 2023