Sunflowers, the state flower of Kansas, are one of four major crops of global importance native to the United States along with blueberries, cranberries and pecans. They get their name from the Greek words helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower, but no one can seem to agree on whether that is because their flower heads look like the sun or the fact that the developing heads follow the sun facing east in the morning and west by sunset. Whatever the reason, Native Americans used native sunflowers for nutrition and medicine, cultivating them as early as 2300 B.C. predating even the “Three Sisters” of corn, beans and squash. Colonists snacked on them too and sent seed back to Europe, where sunflowers were treated as just a garden flower until they reached Russia where they once again were used as an edible crop mainly for their source of oil, however they also are sold in the streets and set out in big bowls in restaurants for snacking. By the 1970’s, Russian hybrids developed to increase yield of oil had returned to the United States for commercial production. Today, whole seeds are used for oil, bird seed and snacks.
A fast growing annual herb which are a favorite of children, sunflowers have a rough, hairy stem growing from 3 to 12 feet high with rough and hairy leaves from 3 to 12 inches long and circular heads of flowers, 3 to 12 inches wide composed of mostly yellow ray florets around the edge and purplish brown flattish disk florets in the center. The flowers bloom in midsummer and continue into early fall with the flat seeds developed from the center disk florets becoming a delicacy to birds and animals as well as humans! Plant seeds one to two inches deep and at least 12 inches apart in full sun and slightly alkaline well-drained soil after the last frost. The seeds will germinate in 7 to 12 days and reach maturity in about 3 months. They may also be started indoors a few weeks earlier as they transplant easily and may grow taller and flower sooner. When growing the taller varieties, you may stake the flowers as they grow, and place them in the wildlife garden to attract birds and butterflies or behind the vegetables as a background. Dwarf varieties are great massed in the flower bed or annual border with other bright colored blooms. If grown for their seeds, harvest when the flower head back is brown, by cutting with a foot of stem attached and hang with a paper bag attached to catch the seeds as they dry or just nail to a tree for a bird-feeding station.
Every part of the sunflower may be used. The flower buds may be boiled and served like artichokes, the bittersweet edible flower petals may be added to soups and salads, plus the whole flowers may be boiled for a yellow dye or dried for wreaths and arrangements. The flowers are also long lasting as a cut flower. The seeds are rich in polyunsaturated oil used for cooking, cosmetics and soaps. The seeds are also for snacking and baking and are a rich source of calcium plus are packed with protein, other minerals and vitamin A, E, B1 and B6. They also contain pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen. To roast, spread on baking sheets for 3 hours at 200 degrees. Roasted, the seeds may also be boiled in water to make a coffee-like beverage. Shelled, the seed kernels are nutty and perfect for perking up a salad, making a wholesome and nutritious bread or combining with melted chocolate to make treats for munching or topping ice cream. The leaves form a food for cattle and the stems contain fiber for paper making. The pith is one of the lightest substances known and is used in scientific laboratories, in Chinese acupuncture and in making delicate silks and coarse ropes.
When considering a location for sunflowers,
remember they face east once fully opened
to protect their seeds from the hot sun
and the plants assimilate a large quantity
of potash and therefore, must not be
planted in the same soil the second year
One of my favorite seed companies, Botanical Interests, offers 16 different sunflower seeds from shorter varieties . . .
Elves Blend - Large and small classic sunflowers and multi-petaled types will brighten your garden, and make cheery bouquets to embellish your indoor spaces
Sunspot - large flower heads on dwarf, 18" - 24" stalks, just the right height for your favorite “Gardener in Training”!
Teddy Bear - A cute addition to your sunflower bed, these bright yellow puffball blossoms will give you a warm, fuzzy feeling!
Goldy Honey Bear - Larger-flowered than Teddy Bear, the blooms become fully double, solid gold, and surrounded by sun-like ray petals.
to larger varieties . . .
Mammoth Grey Stripe - This giant among sunflowers is a fast grower that can reach 12' tall and produce 10" - 12" flowers!
Mammoth Russian – An heirloom grown in gardens since the late 1800s and known for spectacular height, giant flowers and abundant seeds
to colored varieties . . .
Moulin Rouge - a stunning, true red sunflower with no hint of brown or gold, on multi-branching plants
Peach Passion - Yellow petals touched with peach undertones will fill your home and garden with bright and lush bouquets.
Vanilla Ice - a sweet, creamy color to the moonlit garden and your tabletop arrangement
Drop Dead Red - a fabulous mix of florist quality flowers in shades of red from deep burgundy velvet, to steamy valentine red, to autumnal pumpkin/orange-red, some in bicolors
Autumn Beauty – Exquisite sunflowers in diverse autumnal shades of orange, yellow, gold and maroon bi-colors with brown centers
Evening Sun - Rich tones of vivid gold, autumn orange, warm mahogany and blazing bronze are all on one plant!
Flash Blend - Something for every sunflower lover – sunny yellows of Lemon Queen, beautiful warm tones of Autumn Beauty, deep reds of Velvet Queen, and a splash of white from Italian White
to varieties especially for bouquets . . .
Florist's Sunny - brilliant mix of pollenless hybrids, there’ll be no more messy pollen drop from your gorgeous cut flower arrangements
to varieties to feed the birds and bees . . .
Lemon Queen - Bees and other pollinating insects are attracted to the nectar and pollen provided by the large, pale lemon yellow colored flowers with dark brown centers
. . . or varieties to snack on yourself!
Snacker - enormous yellow flowers with green centers average 12" across, and will produce about one pound of seeds filled with tasty, meaty kernels
“. . .All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord stands forever. . .”
I Peter 24-25