My passion for sunflowers, those beautiful radiant summer flowers that brighten up my backyard garden, first began when I was a child. I was fascinated by the fact that from just a few relatively small seeds, I could grow the most amazing giants.
The cottage gardens of old would surely not give the same beautiful display each summer, without one or two of these tall statuesque plants. If you prefer to look down on your plants rather than admiring them from below looking skywards, then the smaller and dwarf varieties are for you! There are plenty of stunning varieties in bright, rich yellows, deep orange, coppery reds and browns. The sunflower gets its name from the Greek words Helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower. There are some 67 species within the Helianthus genus. Most oilseed and ornamental sunflowers are Helianthus annuus.
It is thought that cultivation of sunflowers may predate that of many of the crops used by our forefathers, such as corn, beans and squash. In many countries, the seeds of sunflowers were roasted and ground into a fine meal for baking, or used to thicken soups and stews. Roasted and crushed sunflower hulls (thin shell which encases the seed within) were steeped in boiling water to make a coffee-like beverage. Dye was extracted from the hulls and petals. Face paint was made from dried petals and pollen. Oil, extracted from the ground seeds by boiling, provided many tribes people with cooking oil and hair treatment. Medicinal uses included everything from wart removal to snake bite and sunstroke treatment. In Peru, the Aztecs worshiped sunflowers, they placed sunflower images made of gold in their temples and crowned their royal personages in the bright yellow flowers. When the sunflower was first sent to Europe, it was mainly grown as a garden flower. It was not used as an edible crop again until it reached Russia. In Russia, the Holy Orthodox Church forbade the use of many foods, including many rich in oil, during Lent and Advent. The Russians eagerly accepted the sunflower as an oil source that could be eaten without breaking the laws of the church. Sunflower seeds became a snack food even then and in many countries it is still a popular snack today, without doubt, it is healthier than many of the sweet treats and snacks so popular in Britain. In many parts of Europe sunflowers provide leaves for smoking and flower buds for salads.
Commercial sunflower crops are of two types. One is to produce edible seeds and the other is for oil seed crops. The large grey striped seeds used for eating, make about 25% of sunflower crops and the other 75% is for sunflower oil. Worldwide more than five million metric tons of sunflowers seeds are grown each year. The best varieties developed in Russia contain about 50% oil and are superior quality for cooking. The oil from sunflower seeds is high in polyunsaturated fats. It is light and pale in colour, a low level of saturated fats, a neutral taste, and is able to withstand high cooking temperatures. In health-conscious households around the world, because it is light, it is generally preferable to animal fats for cooking.
The small black seeds of oilseed sunflowers are also a favorite with the birds. Sunflower seeds are high in energy and provide many of the nutrients that most wild birds need. The seed makes excellent chicken-food and feeding fowl on bruised sunflower seeds is well known to increase their laying power.
The types of sunflowers grown as a food crop are also known as non-oilseed sunflowers. These produce larger black-and-white-striped seeds, which are either sold plain or roasted and maybe salted for extra flavor.
Hybrid sunflowers now dominate commercial production as well as ornamental sunflower varieties. One variety that has survived over a very long time is ‘Mammoth Russian’, it is offered by seed companies but is known by many names such as ‘Russian Giant’, ‘Tall Russian’, ‘Russian Greystripe’, or simply ‘Mammoth’. An ornamental variety that has survived is Helianthus debilis ‘Italian White’. In the last few years, three new types have been introduced into the market. The first has a sturdy central stem that produces multiple branches with many flowers. The result is a showy garden plant that is excellent for cutting. Staking is not required. The second type is a dwarf plant that reaches only 1 to 2 ft. (30cm-60cm) tall. These dwarf varieties are wonderful for use in small gardens and containers. The third type is the “pollenless” varieties bred for their use as cut flowers. Being without pollen takes away the risk of staining cloths and soft furnishings, which often happens when Sunflowers are brought into the home.
Sunflowers are easy to grow provided they have direct sun. Well-prepared, rich, fertile soil will yield large flower heads and the meatiest seeds. Young seedlings can withstand light frosts so seeds can be planted out in April. Tall growing varieties should be thinned to stand 2 to 2 ½ ft. (60cm-75cm) apart in the garden and if you are not growing one of the varieties that do not require staking, dwarf varieties fall into this category, then it is better to stake to help support the seed head under windy conditions. The sunflower is phototropic when the plant is in the bud stage, meaning that it tends to follow the movement of the sun from east in the morning to west in the afternoon. Once the flower opens, most sunflowers face east.
A sunflower is ready to harvest when the back portion of the head turns brown. If the weather is warm and dry, the best plan is to leave the plants alone, so that the ripening process can be carried out naturally, the heads being cut when about to shed their seeds.
When the head shrivels and the seeds are ripe, cut the plants at the ground level, standing them with their heads uppermost, like shocks or sheaves of corn. If you keep rabbits or poultry the cut leaves can be striped off and fed to them.
When the heads are thoroughly dry, cut them off and thresh out the remaining seeds by standing each head on its side and taping it with a mallet. Store the seeds in paper bags, in a dry place. The two important things to remember are that the seeds are not ready if they are difficult to remove from the head, and they will not keep very long if not dry when stored.
If the weather is dull or wet, unfavorable for ripening seed out-of-doors, hasten the ripening by cutting the plants at ground level and take them into a cool, dry, place to dry out; make sure that the store is well ventilated. When the heads shrivel, cut them off and complete drying in a very slow oven. Place the heads in single layers on the shelves of an oven set at the lowest setting, leaving the door slightly open.
More Sunflower Facts
The tallest sunflower grown on record was 25 ft (750cm) tall and was grown in the Netherlands.
The largest sunflower head on record measured 32-½ in. (80cm) across its widest point and was grown in Canada.
The shortest mature sunflower on record was just over 2 in. (50mm) tall and was grown in Oregon using the Bonsai technique.
Sunflowers are a good bee plant, as it provides hive bees with large quantities of wax and nectar.
Sunflowers, when the stalks are dry, are as hard as most woods and therefore make an excellent fire; the ash obtained after burning is rich in potash. The ash should be either spread at once or stored under cover; if left exposed to rain, the potash will be washed away and the ash rendered of little value. It can be used particularly on potato or another root crop in the following season, being spread before the crop is planted, at the rate of from 3 oz. to the square yard. Shredded stalks make good mulching material.
Roasted sunflower seeds:
- Roast the seeds in a frying pan at low heat, or in a shallow pan in the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 to 40 minutes.
- Mix one cup of seeds with two teaspoons vegetables oil and one-teaspoon salt.
- Heat and stir continuously in the frying pan until they are hot.
- Stir every 10 minutes to prevent scorching in the oven, more frequently in a frying pan on top of the cooker.