Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant with a large daisy-like flower face. Its scientific name comes from the Greek words helios (“sun”) and anthos (“flower”). The flowers come in many colors (yellow, red, orange, maroon, brown) but they are commonly bright yellow with brown centers that ripen into heavy heads filled with seeds.
HOW LONG DO SUNFLOWERS TAKE TO BLOOM?
A fairly fast-growing flower, most sunflower varieties mature in only 85 to 95 days. The largest sunflower varieties grow to over 16 feet in height, while smaller varieties have been developed for small spaces and containers and rarely grow larger than a foot tall! The flower heads can can reach over 12 inches in diameter within the large seeded varieties.
Sunflowers are heliotropic, which means that they turn their flowers to follow the movement of the Sun across the sky east to west, and then returns at night to face the east, ready again for the morning sun. Heliotropism happens during the earlier stages before the flower grows heavy with seeds.
Very few plants are as heat-tolerant, resistant to pests, and simply beautiful. Sunflowers make excellent cut flowers and many are attractive to bees and birds.
At the end of the season, it’s easy to harvest sunflower seeds for a tasty snack or for replanting.
CHOOSING & PREPARING A PLANTING SITE
- Find a sunny spot! Sunflowers grow best in locations with direct sunlight (6 to 8 hours per day); they require long, hot summers to flower well.
- Choose a location with well-draining soil. It shouldn’t pool water after it rains.
- Sunflowers aren’t picky but the soil can’t be too compact. They have long tap roots that need to stretch out; in preparing a bed, dig down 2 feet in depth and about 3 feet across.
- They’re not too fussy when it comes to soil pH either. Sunflowers thrive in slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline soil (pH 6.0 to 7.5).
- Sunflowers are heavy feeders, so the soil needs to be nutrient-rich with organic matter or composted (aged) manure. Or, work in a slow release granular fertilizer 8 inches deep into your soil.
- If possible, plant sunflowers in a spot that is sheltered from strong winds, perhaps along a fence or near a building. Larger varieties may become top-heavy and a strong wind can be devastating.
PLANTING SUNFLOWER SEEDS
- Sunflowers should be planted 1 to 1-½ inches deep and about 6 inches apart after the soil has thoroughly warmed. If you wish, you can plant multiple seeds and thin them to the strongest contenders when the plants are six inches tall.
- Give plants plenty of room, especially for low-growing varieties that will branch out. Make rows about 30 inches apart. (For very small varieties, plant closer together.)
- A light application of fertilizer mixed in at planting time will encourage strong root growth to protect them from blowing over in the wind.
- Experiment with plantings staggered over 5 to 6 weeks to keep enjoying continuous blooms.
- If you see birds scratching around for the seeds, spread netting over the planted area until seeds germinate.
HARVESTING SUNFLOWER SEEDS
At the end of the season, harvest sunflower seeds for a tasty snack and or to replant or to feed the birds in the winter!
- Let the flower dry on or off the stem until the back of the head turns brown, the foliage turns yellow, the petals die down, and the seeds look plump and somewhat loose.
- With sharp scissors or pruners, cut the head off the plant (about 6 inches below the flower head). Place in a container to catch loose seeds.
- Lie the sunflower head on a flat, clean surface and grab a bowl to hold the seeds.
- To remove the seeds, simply rub your hand over the seeded area and pull them off the plant or you can use a fork. Another way to remove them is to rub the head of the sunflower across an old washboard or something similar. Just grip the head and rub it across the board as if you were washing clothes.
- If you are going to harvest the seeds for roasting, you can cover the flowers with a light fabric (such as cheesecloth) and a rubber band to protect the heads from the birds.
- Alternatively, you can cut the flower head early and hang the heads upside down until the seeds are dry; hang indoors or in a place that’s safe from birds and mice.
- Rinse sunflower seeds before laying out to dry for several hours or overnight.
- If you’re saving seeds to replant, store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place until you are ready to plant.
Everyone is familiar with the huge sunflowers that grow on towering eight-foot-tall stalks. But did you know that some varieties top off at a modest 15 inches?
- The towering ‘Mammoth’ variety is the traditional giant sunflower, sometimes growing to more than 12 feet tall. Its seeds are excellent for snacks and bird feeders, too.
- ‘Autumn Beauty’: One of the most spectacular cultivars, the ‘Autumn Beauty’ has many 6-inch flowers in shades of yellow, bronze, and mahogany on branching stems up to 7 feet tall.
- ‘Sunrich Gold’: A great flower for bouquets and arrangements, this sunflower grows to be about 5 feet tall and produces a single 4- to 6-inch flower. The big, no-mess, pollenless flowers have rich, golden-yellow rays and green-yellow centers.
- ‘Teddy Bear’: Just 2 to 3 feet tall, this small sunflower is perfect for small gardens and containers. The fluffy, deep-gold, 5-inch blossoms last for days in a vase.
WIT & WISDOM
- Some people call sunflowers the “fourth sister,” in reference to the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash.
- Some cultures see sunflowers as a symbol of courage.
- Sunflowers were not only used for cooking by Native Americans, but also for healing; the oil was used to cure skin ailments.
- Need a bird feeder? Save whole, dry sunflower heads and set them out in winter. Birds will gladly pick at the delicious seeds!
- Save thick sunflower stems and dry them for winter kindling.
- An anonymous buyer paid over $39 million in 1987 for Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers.
- The tallest sunflower ever recorded was grown in Germany in 2014. It measured in at a stunning 30 feet and 1 inch tall!
- Kansas is “The Sunflower State.”
Here and yonder, high and low,
Goldenrod and sunflowers glow.
–Robert Kelley Weeks (1840–76)
Just one ounce of sunflower seeds contains about 6 grams of protein and 14 grams of oils. The fats are almost entirely unsaturated with 9g of polyunsaturated and 3g of monounsaturated fats per ounce (NSA). The oil is high in linoleic acid and is a good source of vitamin E.
- Some varieties produce small black seeds that are used in cooking oil, margarine, cosmetics, and animal feed; they are the best sunflower seeds for attracting the greatest variety of songbirds.
- The bigger, striped seeds are grown for snacking and as an ingredient in bread and health foods. They, too, are used for feeding birds, especially larger species, such as jays and mourning doves.
HOW TO ROAST SUNFLOWER SEEDS
Re-soak seeds overnight in salted water. Run through a strainer and dry on a layer of paper towels.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes at 325 degrees on a baking sheet. Seeds should be spread out in a single layer. Stir frequently during the baking and remove seeds when they look slightly browned. Don’t burn!
That’s it! You can all some olive oil, salt, spices to your roasted seeds if you wish.