Stretches of blue sea, white sand beaches, backwaters, and paddy fields - that’s a generic birds-eye view of Alappuzha. But there is another side to Alappuzha that deserves your attention. It is the newly bloomed glorious sunflower farms! As you drive around the Alappuzha bypass road, you are welcomed by the sight of sunflowers blooming in succession. And no one can blame you for thinking you have landed in Thenkasi or Gudaloor.
The young sunflower farmer
At the Vanaswargam-Kalathiveedu road, you can witness this farm wrapped in bright yellow. It’s all thanks to the tenacity of PS Sujith, a young farmer who has proved that it’s not impossible to create a glorious sunflower farm in Kerala too. He was fascinated with the sunflower fields while travelling to Tamilnadu and always harboured dreams of recreating the ones he saw there. When he decided to cultivate sunflower in 2.5 acres of land in Karikkuzhi fields, Sujith was also keen to produce and sell sunflower oil and saplings.
Not just sunflower, he is also cultivating cucumbers and onions. To usher in the Vishu season (Harvest season of Kerala) he has also planted Kani Vellarikka (Kerala Yellow Cucumbers). Over 6000 Hybrid Sunflower saplings were bought from Tamilnadu for cultivation. The cucumber saplings were planted in between these 6000 flowerbeds.
Since it’s a rare sight in Kerala, not surprisingly visitors are arriving in hordes to Instagram feed the bright yellow scenery. A ten-rupee pass is required to get an entry to walk into the sunflower fields, which doesn’t sound like a bad deal at all. There are newly married couples posing in the backdrop of sunflower blooms, a few are trying to shoot films and a lot of them are just here to savour the beauty of sunflowers.
How to grow
Sunflowers grow from mid-summer to early fall and define “summer” like no other plant. This large daisy-like flower face’s scientific name comes from the Greek words Helios (“sun”) and anthos (“flower”). The flowers come in many colours (yellow, red, orange, maroon, brown) but they are commonly bright yellow with brown centres that ripen into heavy heads filled with seeds.
When to sow
• It’s best to sow sunflower seeds directly into the garden (or outdoor containers) after the danger of spring frost has passed any time after soils have warmed to 50°F.
• In most regions, this will fall between April and mid-July. Or mid-March or early April.
• Seeds can be sown successfully from January to June for flowering during summer and the rainy season.
How to choose a planting site
• Sunflowers grow best in locations with direct sunlight (6 to 8 hours per day); they require long, hot summers to flower well.
• Choose a location with well-draining soil. It shouldn’t pool water after it rains.
• Sunflowers aren’t picky but the soil can’t be too compact. They have long taproots that need to stretch out; in preparing a bed, dig down 2 feet in depth and about 3 feet across.
• They’re not too fussy when it comes to soil pH either. Sunflowers thrive in slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline soil (pH 6.0 to 7.5).
• Sunflowers are heavy feeders, so the soil needs to be nutrient-rich with organic matter or composted (aged) manure. Or work in a slow-release granular fertilizer 8 inches deep into your soil.
• If possible, plant sunflowers in a spot that is sheltered from strong winds, perhaps along a fence or near a building.
• Sunflowers should be planted 1 to 1-½ inches deep and about 6 inches apart after the soil has thoroughly warmed. If you wish, you can plant multiple seeds and thin them to the strongest contenders when the plants are six inches tall.
• Give plants plenty of room, especially for low-growing varieties that will branch out. Make rows about 30 inches apart. (For exceedingly small varieties, plant closer together.)
• A light application of fertilizer mixed in at planting time will encourage strong root growth to protect them from blowing over in the wind.
• Experiment with plantings staggered over 5 to 6 weeks to keep enjoying continuous blooms.
• If you see birds scratching around for the seeds, spread netting over the planted area until seeds germinate. See more ways to keep birds away from your garden.
Famous Sunflower farms in India
At Gundlupet, a quaint town in Chamarajanagar district, which is located around 200 km away from Bangalore, is dubbed as the Flowerpot of Karnataka. You can witness yellow sunflowers and marigolds in bloom on either side of the road. Karnataka is the major producer of sunflower in the country, followed by Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu.
Sundarapandiapuram, a rustic town in Tirunelveli is a haven for sunflower farmers. It’s also 3 hrs from Thiruvanthapuram. And July-August will be ideal for a visit.
Sunflower fun facts
• Some people call sunflowers the “fourth sister,” in reference to the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash.
• Some cultures see sunflowers as a symbol of courage.
• Sunflowers were not only used for cooking by Native Americans but also for healing (the oil was used to cure skin ailments) and making clothing (yellow dye was made from the flower petals and black or blue dye from the seeds).
• Need a bird feeder? Save whole, dry sunflower heads, and set them out in winter. Birds will gladly pick at the delicious seeds!
• Save thick sunflower stems and dry them for winter kindling.
• An anonymous buyer paid over $39 million in 1987 for Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
• The tallest sunflower ever recorded was grown in Germany in 2014. It measured in at a stunning 30 feet and 1 inch tall!
• Kansas is “The Sunflower State.”