Sunflowers for Sustainability

Sunflowers in bloom on Warren St. In the Old North Neighborhood. Photo by Nathan Kwarta.

On a vacant lot in the Old North neighborhood in St. Louis, bright yellow sunflowers bloom against a backdrop of brick buildings and a distant view of the Gateway Arch. Years ago, this picturesque scene was a bit bleaker, with construction debris and weeds filling the lot instead of flowers. In stepped the the Sunflower+ Project that filled the lot with blooms that welcome pollinators and people alike.  

History of the project

Sunflower+ Project: STL is a collaboration between the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center and Washington University created as part of the University’s Sustainable Land Lab Design Competition in 2012. Founded by the EarthWays Center’s Richard Reilly and Washington University’s Don Koster, the project was one of five winning entries from a group of 50 proposals that aimed to find sustainable use of vacant urban land, long or short term. 

The Sunflower+ Project is a beautification project, a pollinator project, a biodiversity project, and creates a welcoming space. Photo by Nathan Kwarta.

Why sunflowers?

A flower associated with bright summer days, sunflowers proved the perfect plant for the project. They require little care, only needing water a couple of times year, attract pollinators and enhance biodiversity. “And everybody loves sunflowers,” Reilly added.  The welcoming lot of blooms create a neighborhood gathering space, he said. They are also annual flowers, which is ideal for a project meant to be short term. The ultimate goal, Reilly said, is for the land to be developed. 

What type of sunflowers?

Most of the sunflowers in the lot are cultivars of the Missouri native sunflower, Helianthus annuus. Some are wild varieties, provided as seedings from Shaw Nature Reserve, and others are cultivars from birdseed/black oil from O.K. Hatchery Feed & Garden Store, Inc. 

Rows of short sunflowers bloom at the Sunflower+ Site. Photo by Nathan Kwarta.

Why aren’t they taller?

Toward the end of July, many St. Lousians’ social media feeds are flooded with photos of family and friends in fields of sunflowers as tall, or taller, than them. Columbia Bottoms is one of the most popular local locations for such photoshoots. The key to why these sunflowers grow so tall is in the site name: river bottomland is very fertile.  

At the Sunflower+ site, the sunflowers are going on a previously developed building site and reach a height of just about 2 or 3 feet or so. The fact that they can grow in the site at all shows the versatility of sunflowers to adapt to a variety of conditions.  

A monarch butterfly sits on a sunflower at the Sunflower+ site. Photo by Nathan Kwarta.

Pollinator Paradise

Sunflowers are a favorite of many pollinators including bees, butterflies, and seed eaters such as gold finches, cardinals, and sparrows. All of these are frequent visitors to the Sunflower+ site!

How did you pick the space?

Old North was once a densely populated neighborhood, that emptied out over the years leaving many vacant homes and lots. In recent years, it has seen more development as new businesses open and new homes are built. The Sustainable Land Lab group selected several sites for the design competition, of which Sunflower+ was a winner. The location the Sunflower+ Project  selected is one with great southern exposure.

Who maintains the space?

For 10 years, Reilly has been the main force behind the project, with help from Garden horticulturists and volunteers. Recently, the Garden’s Outdoor Youth Corps, which connects St. Louis region youth with environmental stewardship projects, community engagement opportunities, and potential environmental careers, has become more involved in the project.  

What else is there to see?

Sunflower blooms don’t last all year, so the group wanted to include other elements that aren’t so seasonal. The site displays artwork from area elementary schools, and a scarecrow created by an artist who lives in the neighborhood. 

Sunflowers bloom in front of a mural in the Old North Neighborhood. Photo by Nathan Kwarta.

How to visit

The Sunflower+ Project is located at 1318-24 Warren St. and is always open to the public.

Catherine Martin
Senior Public Information Officer

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