Sunflowers, full of light, take the name from our star, and they symbolize positivity, strength and admiration; there are about 70 species to choose from, mostly annuals.
Large and bright yellow, but also orange or red, they follow the Sun with their big blooms… But growing to up to 30 feet tall (9.0 meters) and often past 12 (3.6 meters) their large blossoms or inflorescences (up to 14 inches or 35 cm) are not for every garden.
Thankfully, when it comes to looks, they are not alone… There are many flowering plants with blossoms that resemble sunflowers, with brightly colored ray petals and a central disk, only, on a smaller scale…
Unlike Helianthus, or sunflower, though, you can even grow some of these sunflower look-alikes in wet, cold, dry or harsh gardens and areas, and unlike them, they all have their own personal twist. And, of course, they are all smaller, which is handy for modest spaces and containers.
If you like the “cheerful sunflower look”, but you can’t grow one, or if you simply want blooms like the flowers of the Sun in your garden, here are 15 of our favorite sunflower look-alike flower varieties which are ideal additions or alternative for the traditional sunflower!
1: ‘Leliani’ Coneflower (Echinacea ‘Leliani’)
Many coneflowers look like sunflowers, but ‘Leliani’ does so much more than other varieties. The reason?
To start with, it has the classical color we associate with the large blooms of the “flowers of the Sun”: bright yellow! Next, of course, it has many petals and a central disk, which reminds us of our star.
However, in the middle, you will find a dome shape, not a flat surface, and this is a difference, as is the size of the blossom, which is about 2 inches across (5.0 cm).
Having said this, its upright stems, large and medicinal foliage and vitality make it a great asset both in gardens and as a cut flower.
Ideal for perennial borders and beds, ‘Leliani’ coneflower is perfect for informal designs, like cottage and English country gardens, even in fairly harsh soil conditions.
2: ‘Giggling SmileyZ’ Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia ‘Giggling SmileyZ’)
Black-eyed Susan offers a small but bold version of sunflowers, and the variety we picked, oddly named ‘Giggling SmileyZ’ is probably the strongest at this.
With dark and rich yellow petals that fade to a reddish brown color towards the center, this semi double variety really has the strong color contrast effect that draws your eye in.
And when you get to the central disk, you find a very, very dark purple core, which, of course, looks like black.
The stems are straight and upright, and the long elliptical leaves are very herbaceous in appearance and bright green, slightly fuzzy.
‘Giggling SmileyZ’ black-eyed Susan is a safe, easy to grow choice for beds and borders, but also as a cut flower, which you can grow from seed as both an annual or a perennial. It is ideal for heavy clay soil.
3: Golden Marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria)
Golden marguerite is like a sunflower but with a much rounder shape… And on a smaller scale… As the name suggests, its color is the same as gold, and very bright indeed.
The whole flower, including the central disk. Which, by the way, is not a disk but a round dome, very pronounced and very prominent in the floral ensemble.
The many petals that surround it are fairly short, giving it an original look. By contrast, the foliage is lacy, and this is a difference with Helianthus, but the added bonus is that they are also very fragrant.
With its abundant blooms, golden marguerite is ideal for a large splash of light and vibrant color during the hot months of summer in informal beds and borders, even in cold regions like Canada or the Northern States.
4: Mexican Marigold (Tagetes lemmonii)
Mexican marigold is a sprawling evergreen shrub with blooms that can remind you of sunflowers. About 2 inches across (5.0 cm), they have fewer but broader petals than Helianthus, oval and softly dented at the margins; the color is bright yellow, and darker in the central disk.
Growing quite tall, it will bring this light and vibrancy to eye level with vast blossoms even during wintertime!
The backdrop is a finely textured clump of fragrant foliage, with divided leaves, and this will also discourage deer from munching away at your garden plants!
It’s not easy to have a sunflower looking bloom during the cold months, so, Mexican marigold is really unique in this list… But don’t worry, it can also blossom at other times as well!
5: False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
Here the clue is clearly in the name: false sunflower… This short lived herbaceous perennial forms clumps of green, pointed, toothed foliage with long and upright stems bearing blooms that reach 3 inches across (7.5 cm) and look like those large smiley and golden yellow blooms we call, in fact, sunflowers.
Loved by pollinators like butterflies and bees, it is very undemanding when it comes to maintenance and it has long lasting displays of color and vibrancy.
For these reasons, false sunflower is a safe bet for large borders even in harsh conditions, including cold and hot climates, as well as areas with low rainfall.
6: Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)
Mexican sunflower is not a sunflower, but it looks like one… This annual loves hot climates, as the origin suggests, and it is quite tall, with fairly large blooms (about 3 inches across, or 7.5 cm) that look like those of Helianthus, but they have much broader elliptical and curving petals.
These can be in shades of bright orange or yellow and they will last for months till the end of the season.
Loved by butterflies and hummingbirds, there are also dwarf varieties if you are in want of space, like ‘Fiesta del Sol’, which only reaches 3 feet tall maximum (90 cm).
Perfect for color displays that last all through the summer and fall, Mexican sunflower is an easy to grow plant that suits beds, borders or even wild prairies.
7: ‘Orange Elf’ Tickseed (Coreopsis ‘Orange Elf’)
‘Orange Elf’ tickseed is like a delicate version of sunflowers… While it retains the bright golden color of the blooms, adding reddish and orange blushes and a flat yellow center, the shape of the petals make it look like a paper flower in a way.
In fact, these are broad and long, but with dented edges, and they are fewer than in Helianthus…
Growing on upright stems, they hover above the dense mid green foliage which will stay healthy and fresh all through the season, till the first frost.
‘Orange Elf’ tickseed is the perfect replacement for sunflowers if you like a less defined but more refined look in your beds or in containers, and even if you have poor soil conditions.
8: Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
Desert marigold offers you a decorative variation on the sunflower shape while maintaining its typical bright color. In fact, the blooms are golden yellow with a saffron central disk.
They reach about 2 inches across (5.0 cm) but the twist is in the ray petals. Roughly rectangular in shape, lightly dented at the margins, arranged in very close proximity with small overlaps, these form a perfect circle, like the halo of a saint.
The next original touch comes from the foliage, which is silver green, deeply lobed and a bit woolly as well. And don’t forget that it blossoms all year round!
Perfect for gravel, rock, desert, and Mediterranean gardens, desert marigold is like the “small and dry” looking version of large sunflowers.
9: Tickseed Sunflower (Bidens aristosa)
Tickseed sunflower is a native Canadian and USA annual with like the stylized look of Helianthus. Reaching about 2 inches across, or 5.0 cm, and opening up towards the Sun, the blooms are golden yellow with a small, darker central disk.
But they do not have many petals; instead, they have 6 to 8 broad and long oval ones… This is to attract bees and pollinators because they are very rich in nectar.
They come on green or redfish purple straight stems that rise above the finely textured green foliage made up of many bipinnate leaves.
Tickseed sunflower is ideal for a naturalized area, like a wild prairie or meadow, or to sow among borders for a sunny touch in the hot season.
10: Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
Pot marigold is a very popular annual from southern Europe that resembles a small sunflower. The colors of the blooms range from yellow to orange, and there are now many single, double and semi double varieties; but the best for this look are single ones!
With long, rectangular petals dented at the tips and small central disks, the blossoms last from late spring to frost! The herbaceous looking bright green foliage makes the perfect backdrop for this flowering marathon.
You can grow pot marigolds in beds, borders and containers, but their best use ever is scattered among vegetables in your kitchen garden. Why? This small plant has a special quality: it keeps pests away!
11: Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
I am adding swamp sunflower to this list for one reason: you can grow it in wet land, near lakes, ponds and riversides. It is in fact a real sunflower (Helianthus) but not your classical one… still it retains clear identifying features.
The ray petals are broad, long, dented and bright yellow in color. On the other hand, the central disk is small, dark and purplish brown, like a little eye in the cent of the Sun.
They form clumps, not tall and single stems, and the foliage is thin, long (6 inches, or 15 cm) and dark, resembling those of willows but hairy…
Late bloomer swamp marigold is great in a naturalized area, like a wild prairie, cottage gardens and, as we have said, if you have wet soil but you still want a sunflower like blossom.
12: Sneezeweed (Helenium aurumnale)
Sneezeweed too looks a bit like a small sunflower – actually, quite a lot! The flowers are about 2 inches across, and they come in small clusters on thin and long, upright stems that branch off at the top.
They are dark yellow but they take on orange, forming a perfect full circle and they take on red blushes as they mature, with many broad petals that reflex slowly and partly over time.
The central disk is raised and barrel shaped, with gold and red brown areas. The leaves are herbaceous, mid green and lance shaped.
Sneezeweed will look great in informal borders and naturalized areas, and, what is more, it will tolerate very cold climates indeed. So you can have small sunflowers even if you live in cold Canada. And it is good around ponds and streams too.
13: Lanceleaf Tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata)
Lanceleaf tickseed looks like the Sun itself, rather than the flower that takes its name from it. the bright yellow petals in fact look really much like the rays of our star.
Long, toothed at the tips and packed together, they form a golden circle full of light. The center is a bit darker and not too big, but showy enough to attract lost of pollinators.
Each head is about 2 inches across (5.0 cm) and it always has 8 petals. They rise above the base tuft, which is made of lance shaped green leaves, thanks to long, thin and erect stems.
Excellent for a mid season display, lanceleaf tickseed is a great performer in flower beds, borders and naturalized areas like prairies, and delightful in cottage gardens.
14: Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)
If you want a very small flower that looks like a sunflower, then golden ragwort could be your choice. It has canary yellow petals that are rounded at the tips, and they leave gals between them, so, they look a bit like the rays of the Sun.
They only reach about 1 inch across (2.5 cm), but they come in breezy clusters at the tips of the slender stems. The central disk is different though, full of golden pistils, it forms a fluffy dome where pollinators can comfortably feed.
The basal clump is made up of heart shaped and toothed leaves, dark green above and purple on the under page, and toothed at the margins.
Golden ragwort is perfect for large, naturalized areas, even under trees, where it propagates spontaneously, forming wide patches of cheerful small sunflower like blooms.
15: Cape Marigold (Dimosphotheca sinuata)
Native of the South Africa, cape marigold forms huge displays on the sandy slopes of the hillsides and wild prairies, with its sunflower like blooms.
These are in fact so dense and vigorous that they literally transform the whole landscape into a sea of bright and warm colors. Reaching about 3 inches across (7.5 cm) the yellow to bright orange flowers have very regular petals, rounded at the tips and long.
The central disk has an almost black line which encompassed the golden and reddish pistils. Very decorative indeed, especially if you imagine it on the thick foliage of thin, rich green small leaves with purple stems!
Cape marigold is by far the best sunflower like plant you can use as ground cover, thanks to its long and mind blowing blooms and short size.
Not Sunflowers, But Still Bright and Sunny!
There are many flowers that look like sunflowers but are not.. Ok, they are all smaller, but they all have a very bright and sunny personality and now you know there is certainly one that will perfectly fit your garden and growing conditions.
Amber Noyes was born and raised in a suburban California town, San Mateo. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of California as well as a BS in Biology from the University of San Francisco. With experience working on an organic farm, water conservation research, farmers’ markets, and plant nursery, she understands what makes plants thrive and how we can better understand the connection between microclimate and plant health. When she’s not on the land, Amber loves informing people of new ideas/things related to gardening, especially organic gardening, houseplants, and growing plants in a small space.