As far as double acts go we all know about Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Fred and Ginger even, but what sunflowers and corn?
It is a common sight to see the two in close vicinity and something I have asked myself more than once is ‘why are sunflowers planted around corn fields?’.
I figure it happens too often for it just to be a coincidence so I decided to do a bit of research into the subject.
It seems there are plenty of reasons why farmers plant sunflowers around corn fields, some seem a bit far-fetched, but some definitely make a lot of sense.
So without further ado, let’s take a look…
Why Are Sunflowers Planted Around Corn Fields?
Sunflowers are planted around corn fields for a number of reasons. Most notably their seeds are attractive to birds and stop them from attacking the corn, they attract bees that pollinate surrounding plants and lead to an improved harvest and they bring predatory insects that keep pesky bugs off of the corn. It is also suggested farmers plant sunflowers to attract doves for dove hunting.
1: Sunflowers Stop Birds Targeting the Corn
A staple ingredient in all types of bird mix is sunflower seeds. Our feathered friends love the snack and will take any opportunity to get a taste.
So the theory is that by planting sunflowers around a cornfield the birds will pick at them, rather than the corn.
Whilst it won’t keep birds away from corn completely, it is estimated that it can reduce crop damage by 10%.
So it seems like a quick, easy and inexpensive way for a farmer to protect their own livelihood.
2: Sunflowers Attract Beneficial Pests
In a similar way, sunflowers are much loved by a variety of bugs, attracted by their bright colors and as a valuable food source.
The benefits of this are twofold.
Firstly, these bugs are content to spend their time on the sunflowers rather than damaging the corn.
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Secondly, the sunflowers attract insects that otherwise wouldn’t be present in the monoculture. Many of these insects act as predators, feeding on any bugs that do make their way to the corn.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of the Kentucky Academy of Science in 2012, found that planting dwarf sunflowers near sweet corn attracted a whole host of pest-killing ladybugs that benefitted the corn.
3: Sunflowers Attract Bees
Did you know bees can’t see red colors? So the big bright yellow leaves of sunflowers are perfect for them.
The sunflower is rich in nectar too and bees love this along with the pollen.
Bees also love it when a group of sunflowers is planted together as they can fly from flower to flower gathering nectar.
By having these wonderful insects around the pollination of all plants increases, and farmers will see an improved harvest.
On top of this, rather sadly, a Government report in September 2021 revealed that many species of bee are declining to the point they are classified as an endangered species. The American honeybee for instance has declined by 89 percent in recent years.
So growing a pollinator-friendly plant like the sunflower will attract an abundance of bees and help keep their life cycle going.
4: The Sunflowers Act As A Barrier
Another theory is that by planting a large number of sunflowers on the outside of a corn field, they act as a natural windbreak to protect the crops they are surrounding.
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In fact, as far back as 1993 American gardening expert Nancy Bubel recommended five to six rows of sunflowers about three feet apart as “good windbreak options with little financial investment.”
It has also been suggested the sunflowers could act as a deterrent against deer, who will be repelled by their scratchy stems.
5: Sunflowers Are Great For Hunting Dove
Now I have to admit I was a bit skeptical when I read this theory, but then a surprising number of people backed it up (as does the video above!), so maybe there is something in it…
Here are three direct quotes:
“In our area (eastern Virginia) the only reason farmers plant sunflowers in small areas around corn fields is to attract doves for dove hunting”.
“I’m from Georgia and the only people that plant sunflowers do it for dove.”
“100% for hunting birds, usually doves!”
Apparently, the idea is that the sunflowers harvest their crop and drop the seeds, leaving a flat area that attracts doves.
The sunflowers are left standing, so a farmer has a nice concealed area from which they can hunt the birds that come to eat the seed.
6: Sunflowers and Corn Are Mutually Beneficial To Each Other
It has been suggested that sunflowers and corn are mutually supportive to a degree, and that is why they are often planted close to each other or even rotated.
Corn and sunflower root systems complement each other, with each providing what the other lacks.
Retired South Dakota farmer Sam Heikes, expanded on this to the Sunflower Magazine, saying: “It’s about what’s going on around the root systems of the two crops, the relationship is favorable between the microorganisms and fungi unique to each plant species.”
Corn produces a fungus called ‘arbuscular mycorrhizal’, that sneds long branching root structures into the soil where they create channels
Planted after the corn harvest, sunflowers can utilize these root channels and access even more nutrients and water.
7: Sunflower Can Detox Surrounding Soil
Sunflowers are phytoremediators.
That is a fancy way of saying their roots and stems absorb chemicals and contaminants in the soil, effectively acting as a natural way of detoxing it.
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In fact, sunflowers were planted on a widescale in both Chernobyl and Fukushima after the respective nuclear disasters.
So another suggestion for why sunflowers are planted around corn fields is they leave the soil in a much healthier state.
8: Sunflowers Look Nice!
One of the most straightforward ideas on why farmers grow sunflowers is for the same reason many people do – they are beautiful!
They are vibrant, colorful and inviting plants that are guaranteed to raise anyone’s spirits.
They might even encourage visits to a farm during slow periods, and act as free advertising if visitors take photos and share them on social media.
As you can see there is no definitive answer as to why farmers plant sunflowers around corn fields, but there are a number of very plausible theories.
These theories are all based on fact, and there is a strong argument that to some extent farmers take them all into consideration when planting sunflowers.
Undoubtedly, sunflowers are very attractive flowers to everyone. Not just humans, but birds and insects alike.
It is this draw that seems to provide many benefits to surrounding corn, keeping potential pests of all kinds at a minimum.