Ashy sunflower is a perennial sunflower usually appearing in colonies. Flowerheads are few, often a lemony yellow, to 3½ inches wide. The overlapping bracts beneath the flowerhead are many, narrow, and thin. July–October. Leaves sessile, stiff, densely gray-hairy, broadly ovate, opposite, with inconspicuous teeth.
Similar species: Of the 6 most widely distributed sunflowers in Missouri, 2 others have leaves with very short petioles. Stiff-haired sunflower (H. hirsutus) has fairly uniform lanceolate leaves, almost all opposite, with small teeth. The rough hairs make it feel like sandpaper. The flowerheads are all yellow; the rays often point upward. Prairie sunflower (H. pauciflorus) grows to 7 feet tall and has toothless, rough-hairy, mostly broadly lanceolate leaves that are green (not grayish). The disk florets are purple, the flowerheads few, but large.
For an overview of Missouri’s sunflowers, visit their group page.
Height: to 4 feet, but usually much shorter.
Common in the Unglaciated Plains Division, thus mostly in the southern half of the state, scattered elsewhere. Mostly absent from northwestern Missouri.
Habitat and Conservation
Primarily occurs in prairies, but also roadsides and fields: Upland prairies and glades, pastures, old fields, fencerows, margins of ditches, railroads, and roadsides.
Tallgrass prairies have a special charm that is not apparent when you speed by them on a highway. But if you visit a prairie regularly, and watch plants like ashy sunflower grow and develop over the course of a year, you learn to love even their dried remains that stand starkly through the winter.
Sunflowers provide nectar and pollen to a great variety of insects, plus a hunting ground for spiders, assassin bugs, and other predators of the many insects attracted to the nectar and pollen. When the flowers are spent, birds and mammals, including finches and rodents, relish the sunflower seeds.