The sunflower is the backbone of the heliotropes. Photo: ©istockphoto.com/ SalawinOur wonderful sun, Helios to the Greeks, is so beautiful he turns heads. Especially in the world of flowers. Heliotropic plants turn their faces during the day to follow the sun. Alfalfa, soy beans and cotton are heliotropic but they are not ornamenting our gardens. The backbone of the heliotropes is the sunflower. Planted at the back of a garden facing south, their huge heads turn from right to left as we look at them seeming to be reading the garden before them like a book. Okra also follows the sun and is so ornamental in the vegetable garden.

Poppies and anemone turn with the sun as well as buttercups and lupine. The beautiful dark blue garden heliotrope in the borage family, an annual in zone 7, became so popular that the word is used to name the color rather than the diurnal movement. Winter heliotrope, an Irish wild flower which spreads in damp settings, doesn’t seem to flower well for me but occasionally sends up some stalks of pinkish purple clusters which dip and nod out of the shade towards the sun.
The new science of biomimicry studies how human problems can be solved by looking at nature’s designs. Energy is scarce in nature, so plants are most efficient. Solar cells are designed after the cells in a leaf. Gardeners have done this for years, turning towards the sun each season to grow food which stores the sun’s energy for us to use later. We learn to follow life’s principles; build from the bottom up (pay attention to drainage and soil nutrients), optimize rather than maximize (use all your garden space by interplanting), use free energy, cross pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, use life-friendly materials (no Sevin dust!), engage in symbiotic relationships (companion plant).
This season, if you have a sunny garden, look for the plants with ‘helio’ in the name; helianthemum or ‘sun rose’, the many perennial varieties of helianthus and heliopsis which are also deer and vole resistant. From the time you sit with coffee or tea in the morning until you sit with a glass of wine or a bit of chocolate in the evening, the flowers will turn their heads to watch over the garden while they entertain you.