It’s true, gardens need plenty of sunshine. Plants thrive on its energy and we love its warmth. So how do you capture and show off that vitality in a garden plant? Simple, you grow sunflowers! These beautiful, bright flowers, with delicious and nutritious seeds, turn any garden into a sunny oasis.
Steady as the Sun(flower)
Properly known as Helianthus annuus L., the sunflower is a member of the family Asteraceae ⁄ Compositae (Aster family) and is one of the few crops that are native to North America. This sunny flower can be grown in most plant hardiness zones and, while not officially considered drought tolerant, can continue growing and producing while many other water-intensive crops fail in the summer heat. Plus, this flower can tolerate slightly acidic, slightly alkaline (pH 5.5-8.0) or low salinity soils. To say the least, this is one hardy plant! I suppose the hardiness of the sunflower is one reason it was introduced to Europe, most likely via Spain, and ended up being readily adopted in Russia.
If you decide to plant these happy flowers, as mentioned before, they aren’t picky about soils, but don’t like to be water-logged and need full sun (6-8 hours) to thrive. To begin your flowers, sow seeds in late spring when the ground has warmed to 60°F. Place seeds 1-2’ apart and cover with 1” of soil. Light fertilization is appropriate to encourage strong roots and stems. To also encourage strong root growth water deeply, but infrequently (approximately 1x per week). With proper care, your sunflowers will mature in 80-120 days depending on variety planted.
Keep your Flowers Sunny
Sometimes our friends in the wild want to eat our sunflowers even if we haven’t invited them to do so. To help prevent this, cover the sunflower heads with cheesecloth, a paper bag, or polyspun garden fleece to keep out birds and squirrels. For deer, you will need to fence your garden in to keep them out. Certain species of moths can wreak havoc on sunflowers. If larvae are noticed on plants remove immediately. Don’t spray sunflowers with insecticides, as this can leave chemical residues that can be ingested. The biggest problem for sunflowers is fungi caused disease. If you see white cottony areas or rust colored or dark brown spots on sunflowers they are suffering from the effects of fungi. To treat this, create a spray by mixing 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar mixed with 1 gallon of water. This treats a variety of infections caused by fungi.
Sunflower seeds are protein-packed nutritional powerhouses. As with most nuts and seeds, they can be calorically dense. So enjoy, just don’t overdo it. One cup (46 grams) of seeds offers 269 calories, 24 grams of fat, 10 grams of protein, and 9 grams of carbohydrates (4 grams of which is dietary fiber). Sunflower seeds are excellent sources of vitamin E (Alpha Tocopherol) and good sources of Vitamin B6, thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese and selenium. Due to their vitamin and mineral content, sunflower seeds promote a healthy cardiovascular system, improve mood, and enhance thyroid health.
To Eat or Not to Eat
It’s up to you if you want to grow sunflowers to brighten your garden and fill lovely large vases with beautiful blooms or if you want to harvest the seeds for you or your wildlife neighbors to eat and enjoy. Depending on what your goal is to choose the variety of flower that best suits your needs. If you are going for visual appeal, cut the main stem prior to the main bloom opening in order to encourage side blooms. When cutting sunflowers, handle them gently and cut early in the morning to prevent flower wilting. Cut flowers usually last 1–2 weeks if placed in a well-supporting vase with water replaced daily.
If you choose to eat the seeds or feed to wildlife you will need to cut and dry the heads of the sunflowers. As the back of the flower heads go from green to yellow the bracts begin to turn brown and the seeds are beginning to dry. When the back of the heads turn brown, the seeds will be ready for harvest. At this time, cut the heads from the plant about 3-4” below the bloom. You can keep the seeds intact and offer the full sunflower head to feed birds and squirrels. If you prefer to harvest the seeds, once the heads have been cut, simply remove seeds from the head with your fingers. Store seeds in cloth bags with good air flow to prevent mold growth.
You can enjoy your seeds raw, just as our feathered friends do, or you can go about toasting them. To toast, place the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet, salt, and then cook at 350° F until the seeds puff and the shells crack (about 10 minutes). You can shell them and enjoy them straight from the oven or add crunch to your dinner salad. Cooked sunflower seeds also make delicious seed butter and cookies. If you want to try your hand at some sunny fun try these recipes.
Sunflower Seed Butter
2 cups roasted (unsalted) sunflower seeds
1-3 T melted coconut oil
Salt to taste
Place seeds and oil in a food processor and blend until smooth (2-3 minutes)
If seed butter isn’t smooth enough add more oil and blend for an additional 2-3 minutes
Once seed butter has reached desired consistency salt to desired taste and enjoy!
Store in an airtight container
This recipe makes 1 cup of seed butter. For larger batches simple double or triple.
Sunflower Seed Cookies
(Yields 8-10 dozen)
2 cups almond flour
1 cup coconut flakes
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp aluminum-free baking powder
4-5 dried dates
½ cup warm milk
1 T melted coconut oil or butter
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cloves
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp salt
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup 100% cacao nibs
Preheat oven to 350° F
Place all ingredients except sunflower seeds and cacao nibs into a food processor
Blend until well combined but not soupy. (If dough is a bit runny add more almond flour. If the dough is too thick slowly add 1-2 tsp of water.)
Mix in seeds and cacao nibs by hand
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper
Using a small spoon, drop dough in rows on pan approximately 2” apart
Cook 10-15 minutes or until lightly browned
Remove from oven
Let rest on cookie sheet for 1 minute
Transfer to a wire rack for cooling
With this beautiful bold flower, we can create cheerful gardens and delicious recipes. John Lennon sang “we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun”. We indeed do, and we can share some of that glowing happiness by adding the ever shining sunflower into our growing spaces for all to see.
MacKenzie, J. 2017. Regents of the University of Minnesota. University of Minnesota Extension. Sunflowers. https://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/flowers/sunflowers/
Choose My Plate.gov. October 7, 2016. US Department of Agriculture. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/tools-supertracker
Natural Resource Conservation Service. US Department of Agriculture. Helianthus annuus L. common sunflower. https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=HEAN3
Putnam, D., et al. November 1990. Departments of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Entomology and Plant Pathology, University of Minnesota. Departments of Agronomy and Soil Science, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Cooperative Extension Service, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Alternative Field Crops Manual. Sunflower. https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/sunflower.html