view current print edition






New for 2018 — two rare, white sunflower varieties

For more than 40 years, geneticist Dr. Tom Heaton has been developing ornamental sunflowers and over half of that time he’s been diligently searching for a pure white sunflower.

“It’s been at least 20 years of selections; it’s been a long road,” Heaton told The Produce News. “It was in the early 90s that I realized I could do a white. This is not GMO or anything like that; it’s just straight selection. I don’t wear sunglasses when I’m working out in the field so I see every gradation of color.”

Heaton’s two companies — Sunflower Selections and NuFlowers in Woodland, CA — have created dozens of sunflower varieties over the years that are currently available to growers, florists and home gardeners. But a pure white sunflower is a true milestone.

PROCUT-WHITE-LITEProCut White Lite is a new white sunflower variety with a light green to pale yellow center.“White is a revolutionary color in the sunflower world,” Heaton said in a news release. “We’re the only people in the world that have it. The white might look good, but the plant also has to have acceptable flower quality. We’re really creating these for the cut-flower industry. We think it will have a great impact in the flower world.”

The two new varieties are named ProCut White Nite and ProCut White Lite. They both have a strong five-foot stalk and produce an eight-inch bloom, but White Nite has a nearly black center while White Lite’s center is light green to pale yellow.

“There is a whole lot of elements, it’s not just the color of the petals,” Heaton told The Produce News. “It has to be a nice flower and it has to have all the agricultural traits you need to grow it. And from our point of view as a seed company, it has to produce enough reliable seed year after year. I was real reluctant to put this out earlier and have it backfire on me.”

Heaton is referring to a couple of previous “hiccups.” Six years ago, he thought he’d found his white sunflower, which he named Coconut Ice, but then he discovered it couldn’t reliably produce seed in hot weather. Another ongoing challenge he faced was creating a white sunflower that bees would actually pollinate.

“Bees don’t see color the way we do,” Heaton said. “We had to find a white sunflower they would like, too. These two produce good nectar.”

Yellow and orange sunflowers with black centers are very popular flowers and they are frequently used in summer and fall bouquets. But white sunflowers would help to broaden the market.

“These expand the use of sunflowers into bouquet mixes with more pastel colors,” said Heaton. “They’re appropriate for spring holidays such as Easter or Mother’s Day; they’d be perfect for weddings and bridal showers. And white petals can accept flower dye — those big petals could be tinted pink, lavender, red, green or blue. The main thing we try to do here is to expand opportunities for sunflowers and to give growers more opportunity to use their sunflower technology in different product areas.”

Jason Levin, chief executive officer at sunflower-centric grower Dos Gringos in Vista, CA, told The Produce News that his company has been trialing Heaton’s white sunflowers for a few years.

“We will be the first to grow them semi-commercially, with harvests starting in the early spring,” Levin said.

In addition, 100 volunteer growers through the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers have tested these new white varieties nationwide.

“We’ve had growers grow them already and the reception has been good,” Heaton said. “This product is producible and I think it fills a need in the marketplace. We’ll keep improving it and I think over time we’ll have even better whites, but this is really a good product for the industry.”

And the florists that have seen the white sunflowers are very excited about their future design and event potential.

“We’ve seen it in arrangements and the things that florists can do with it is pretty impressive,” said Heaton. “It doesn’t look like a sunflower — it looks like a giant daisy. I can imagine a tall vase of these big white sunflowers in a wedding — I think it would look stunning.”