Native to the Americas, Helianthus annuus – or the common sunflower – is among the most recognizable flowers in the world. Once worshipped by the Incas as a symbol of the Sun God, these towering beauties are bright and cheery, the perfect symbol of summertime.
Planting a row of sunflowers along a fence or as a group in a corner garden will certainly add a dose of happiness to your outdoor spaces. And sunflowers aren’t just pretty – there are also plenty of practical uses for this lovely cultivar.
About the Sunflower…
Typically growing to a height of 10 feet, the classic sunflower is yellow petaled with a deep brown center. What we often consider the sunflower’s “flower head” are actually florets – the true flowers are found in the center of the head (called the disk flowers) which mature into seeds.
Gaze closely into the epicenter of a sunflower and you will see a mesmerizing pattern of spirals in the Fibonacci sequence – 34 spirals in one direction and 54 in the other. This arrangement is the most efficient way to pack as many seeds as mathematically possible in the floral disk.
From the “American Giant”, growing 14 feet high with a flower span of one foot, to the miniature “Dwarf Sunspot” that reaches a height of only two feet, there are dozens of sunflower cultivars to choose from, suitable for gardens large and small. Though many sunflowers have showy yellow petals, the crimson petaled “Prado Red” and the pink with yellowed tips “Strawberry Blonde” are a couple examples of the more unusual varieties.
How To Grow Sunflowers:
Hardy and non-fussy, sunflowers are very easy to grow. They are tolerant of high temperatures and drought, and are remarkably resistant to insects and disease. Sunflowers will attract bees and birds to your yard, but also deer, squirrels, rabbits, and other woodland critters, so extra care should be taken to ensure their flowers and seeds remain intact.
Light Requirements – It’s no surprise that sunflowers love the sun. When planting, select a location that receives 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight.
Soil – The roots of the sunflower plant need a lot of space to grow and will thrive in loose, well-draining soil. Prepare the garden bed by digging down 2 feet and 3 feet wide per plant. Sunflowers prefer a soil pH of 6 to 7.5.
Watering – Since sunflowers can handle dry periods, take care not to over water them. Give them a generous watering once per week – more if it’s particularly dry and less if it has rained. Since the sunflower plant’s roots are expansive, water 3 to 4 inches from the base of the plant stem.
Fertilizer – When first planting, use nutrient rich compost or a slow-release low-nitrogen fertilizer such as 5-10-10. Sunflowers shouldn’t need much more fertilizer as they mature; if you think they could use a boost, use a very dilute amount and apply 6 inches away from the base of the plant.
Sowing – Sunflowers are best sown from seed directly into the soil after the last frost. For large varieties, sow in rows 30 inches apart; shorter cultivars can be sown closer together. Plant the seeds no more than one inch deep.
Supports – Tall sunflower varieties will benefit from bamboo stakes to keep them upright.
Pest Control – Prone to attacks by deer, rabbits, and squirrels, erect a mesh fence around the perimeter of your sunflowers. To protect the seeds from birds and squirrels, wrap the flower heads in garden fleece.
The Myriad Uses Of The Sunflower:
The entire plant, from root to flower, is eminently useful. Here are our favorite ways to ensure nothing goes to waste come autumn:
1. Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of vitamin E, copper, vitamin B1, manganese, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin B3. A healthful snack to be sure, eating the seeds provides anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and detoxifying benefits; they also help lower cholesterol, calm nerves, and protect heart health.
Sunflower seeds are ripe about 30 to 45 days after blooming. The back of the flower heads will turn from green to brown, and the seeds will turn black or black with white stripes. This means the seeds are ready to harvest. Snip off the flower at the stem 4 inches below the flower and remove seeds with a fork. Dry sunflower seeds thoroughly and store in an airtight jar in the fridge or freezer; they will keep for up to one year. You can eat them raw or make some roasted sunflower seeds to snack on. And be sure to save a few seeds to plant in the garden next spring.
2. Sunflower Oil
Rich in antioxidants and fatty acids, sunflower oil is among the healthiest fats to cook with. Use it for frying and preparing homemade salad dressing. Beyond food, sunflower oil is a wonderful tonic in your beauty regimen.
The high vitamin E content in sunflower oil ensures it is great for skin. It helps fight free radicals, regenerate skin cells, speed up healing, moisturize dry skin, and reduce the visibility of scars. It is also deeply hydrating for the hair. As a natural conditioner, sunflower oil can help prevent hair breakage, reduce thinning, and treat alopecia.
If you already have an oil press, you are ready to render sunflower seeds into nutrient-rich oil. If not, the process of making sunflower oil is incredibly simple but a bit labor intensive. Use a relatively inexpensive hand grinder and run the seeds through it, creating a mash of sorts. Place the seed mash into a thin cloth and press, twist, and squeeze out every last drop of oil. You can watch a video of the entire process here. Once the oil is extracted, let it rest for a few days; it will settle into a golden yellow color.
If you raise chickens, you can use the leftover seed mash as a healthy treat.
3. Sunflower Seed Flour
Sunflower seed flour is high in protein and various minerals and micronutrients like thiamine, pantothenic acid, magnesium, zinc, and copper. Vegan and gluten-free, it’s a good substitute for nut flours like almond flour. And because it’s mild in taste, it can be used in lieu of wheat flour in a slew of baked goods – from bread and cookies to muffins and pancakes.
To make, grind up sunflower seeds in a blender or food processor and pulse until it becomes a fine grain flour. Be careful not to over-blend as it can turn into butter. Use a fine mesh strainer to sift out the larger bits. Store in the fridge or freezer.
And just so you know, when sunflower seeds are combined with baking soda or baking powder, a chemical reaction occurs after the food is heated, turning it a shade of green. While it’s perfectly safe to eat, you can avoid this issue by adding a dash of cocoa powder to the recipe to conceal any green hues. Another option is to add 1 to 3 teaspoons of lemon juice to the wet ingredients in your recipe.
A nut-free alternative to peanut butter, sunbutter is a sweet and nutty spread with its own unique flavor.
Spread out your sunflower seeds on a baking sheet and roast in the oven at 350°F for 4 minutes. Toss and flip the seeds and return the tray to the oven for another 4 minutes. Pour seeds into a food processor, add some sea salt, and blend until the seeds become powdery. Continue processing for about 15 minutes, stopping every couple of minutes to scrape down the sides of the processor. Add maple syrup or coconut sugar to sweeten; you can also use some ghee to make it extra creamy. Keep blending until it reaches a buttery consistency and add more salt or sweetener to taste.
5. Edible from Root to Petal
Though sunflower seeds receive all the glory, the entire sunflower plant – roots, stalks, leaves, petals – are quite tasty.
The roots, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, can be roasted, fried, steamed, and mashed. Slice them up raw to add to a salad.
Sunflower stalks are akin to celery, mild in taste with a satisfying crunch.
Leaves can be eaten raw by adding them to salads or boiled like spinach. You can also steep the leaves in hot water to make tea, traditionally used to treat fever, coughing, and diarrhea.
The bright yellow sunflower petals are bittersweet and can be used to offset a really sweet dish. Sprinkle them on a fresh salad for a burst of color.
6. Natural Dye
Sunflower petals can be used to make an all-natural yellow dye. Simply toss your collection of petals into a stainless steel pot and cover them completely with water. Simmer on the stovetop for about an hour, until the water is saturated with color. Strain out the petals and use the dye on natural fibers like wool, cotton, linen, and silk.