Sunflowers are THE plant this summer.
The bright yellow mega-flowers are springing up everywhere, and not just in fields and gardens. As the national flower of Ukraine, sunflowers have gotten a boost as supporters of the besieged country display them on houses, clothing and social media posts.
Ken Johnson, horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension Services, says he expects interest in sunflowers to continue.
"I've seen a lot more people growing them," he says. "There is a size and a shape and a color for everyone out there," explaining sunflowers can be as short as six inches to as tall as 12 feet. While yellow is the most common, bloom colors such as orange, red and maroon are available.
Growers wanting to eat the seeds will have to get to them before birds and squirrels, Johnson warns, but planting the flowers for ornamental purposes is popular, too.
So is viewing what others have planted. Central Illinoisans wanting to see and photograph fields of yellow have plenty of options within a few hours of driving, ranging from state parks to commercial mazes.
Nearly 40 state parks sport sunflower fields, according to Bob Caveny of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Tenant farmers usually grow the plants and leave some unharvested to draw doves for hunting season.
Not all parks have fields accessible for public viewing, and visitors to the ones that do should avoid picking the flowers, trampling the fields and visiting once hunting begins Sept. 1. The best time to view fields is usually July into early August, he says, although this year's wet spring delayed planting. Would-be viewers should check with their local state park to learn peak blooming time.
One nearby park with fields is Jim Edgar Panther Creek near Chandlerville. Superintendent Nate Goetten says the park has nearly 100 acres of sunflowers.
"We don't plant them for aesthetic purposes, but they are beautiful in full bloom," Goetten says. "We have lots of people come out to look at them during the two weeks of prime viewing." Those two weeks vary, but visitors can call the park in mid-summer to check (217-452-7741).
He says the fields are popular for high school senior pictures, and several years ago the park hosted a small wedding in front of the sunflowers. "We had everything ready so all (the couple) had to do was swing in here on a Saturday and get married."
If you want to walk among sunflowers instead of posing in front of them, you can head to Champaign, Paris, Belleville or Minooka, where farms offer mazes or paths.
Champaign's Clearview Farm plants 34 acres of sunflowers and opens the field to the public every day from daylight to dark some 75-80 days after planting. Usually 30,000 to 50,000 visitors show up every year, says Jim Goss, vice president of farms for the Atkins Group, which runs Clearview.
The farm began offering free sunflower mazes in 2020 and changes the pattern every year. Extra experiences such as sunflower yoga, wine tasting and professional photography sessions come with a fee.
Goss says the maze is the company's gift to the community. "It is part of a larger, 140-acre regenerative agriculture farm for demonstration and community engagement." As such, the farm also plants 19 crops including quinoa, flax, safflower and horseradish to educate people about them.
Southeast of Champaign, sunflower seekers can get a fix at L&A Family Farms in Paris. Co-owner Brian Lau expects 5,000 summer visitors to his 25-30 acres of sunflowers and the "glorified path with a few dead ends," he says, describing the farm's maze.
The farm began planting sunflowers in 2016 and this year will offer 20 different varieties in a special field where visitors can pick their own blooms. The farm has four different plantings in the summer and one in the fall, but the height of sunflower season is mid-July to mid-August, Lau says.
Open every day, the farm also offers 17 varieties of flowers to cut, but the sunflowers remain popular. "I think it is the beauty of the flower," Lau says, adding they make a good photo opportunity.
The farm's website warns of some potential hazards, however, including muddy or dusty paths, hot and muggy weather and bees, especially worrisome for anyone allergic to their stings.
Across the state near Belleville, Eckert's Family Farm plants two acres of sunflowers and hosts a trail through them during daytime hours. Peak time usually is late July to early August, according to Amanda Morgan, marketing director.
"Most people come out for photos," she says, adding few nearby places offer such a unique experience. Visitors also can pick their own peaches and blackberries on the same trip.
Those seeking a sunset experience among sunflowers can register on the Eckert's website for two evenings, July 28 and Aug. 4. For about $30, participants get access to the field, Eckert's hard cider and music.
Several sunflower fields flourish in northern Illinois, with the closest one to Springfield near Minooka, southwest of Joliet. Heap's Giant Pumpkin Patch has more than nine acres of sunflowers, zinnias and other flowers for viewing and buying in August and September.
Heap's is open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. with an admission fee of $12 for anyone 3 and older. Admission includes farm activities, entrance to the fields and one bloom.
Mary Bohlen of Springfield enjoys discovering new places and experiences, especially in Illinois. A freelance travel writer, she spent her career as a reporter and university journalism professor.