Dorothy is a master gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape and nature photographer.
Sunflowers Are Loved Around the World
Large, beautiful sunflowers are loved worldwide, and there are over 60 different types of them with a variety of beneficial properties, so what's not to love? They are cultivated for their seeds, which have become a very popular snack food for people everywhere, and although they are native to North America, the commercialization of the crop actually began in Russia. The people there could thank (believe it or not) Peter the Great, who fell in love with the flowers in Holland and took seeds back home to Russia, where they began to cultivate them in what grew to be a very large, lucrative commercial scale (over two million acres a year).
Possibly, they realized earlier than Americans that the seed is a good source of selenium, which has been proven to be beneficial in the fight against cancer, but that is simply conjecture on our part due to the fact that Americans first began using it as chicken feed. The seeds also contain magnesium and copper, two minerals good for your bones.
In the United States, sunflower seeds are now cultivated mainly for cooking oil and birdseed, primarily in the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, California and Minnesota, although American Indians have been cultivating the crop for about five thousand years. Some archaeologists have indicated that sunflowers were likely domesticated by tribes before corn.
Sunflowers Used by American Indians
American Indian tribes, such as the Cherokees, ground the crop into meal, or pounded it into flour to be used for cakes or bread. Some of the tribes mixed the meal with various vegetables, including corn, squash or beans. The seeds, collected by hunter-gatherers (mostly for the fat to offset all the lean meat they ate), were cracked and eaten as snack food; and oil was squeezed from them to use in making bread products that looked much like the pita that we know and love today.
And it was the American Indian who first domesticated the plant into a single-headed plant with a variety of seed colors.
The Aztec Indians also cultivated the sunflower plants, but they worshipped them as well. The priestesses, in their temples, wore headdresses made of sunflowers.
Dakota and Pawnee Tribes
These tribes would drink a decoction (extraction of the essence) made from the sunflower head for respiratory ailments like bronchitis, lung infections and pleurisy.
Aztec Tribal Priestess Sunflower Headdress
Why Do Sunflowers Always Face the Sun?
The sun is tracked by the flower buds of the sunflower (and many other plants) in a process known as heliotropism (the directional growth of the plant in response to sunlight). When a leaf is perpendicular to the sun, it allows the maximum amount of sunlight which is needed to power photosynthesis (the process by which the plant uses sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water by converting light energy into chemical energy). The light is needed to make a sugar called glucose, their source of energy, so in fact, the plant is creating its own food.
Note: The large part at the top of a sunflower is not a single flower, but is actually a "flower head" containing hundreds of tiny, discrete flowers, each of which turns into a seed after pollination. The yellow petals that we have come to accept as a part of the flower are leaves that are there to protect the center of the head while it is growing.
How to Plant and Grow Sunflowers
After you select a location for your plants, which will need a rich soil that drains well and an area where they can get several hours of sun each day, these are the supplies you will need:
- Sunflower Seeds (for the first planting only)
With your location chosen and your supplies in hand, you will then need to do the following:
- Dig down in the soil, turning over the top 18-24 inches and add compost to the turned soil, breaking up clumps as you work the compost in. Once you have broken up any clumps, smooth out the soil with your rake.
- In most areas, the ideal time to plant your seeds is in May and June or when nighttime temperatures are expected to be above 50 degrees, and they should be planted at least twice as deep as the seed is long.
- Plant five or six seeds several inches apart and thin out the weaker plants until you end up with the strongest plant possible.
- Keep the soil moist until they germinate.
- When your plants are several inches tall, add some mulch to keep moisture in the soil and control weeds.
If you are planning on roasting the sunflower seeds, you will need to do the following:
- Cut the flower with a sharp knife or scissors when the seed head begins to turn brown.
- Hang upside down to dry, then rub the seed head to release the seeds.
- Soak seeds overnight in salt water and roast them in a single layer on a cookie sheet in a 200-degree Fahrenheit oven for three hours, stirring occasionally.
- Crack and enjoy.
Some Other Uses for Sunflowers
- Sunflower oil is used in making salad dressings.
- The oil is also used for cooking and in the manufacturing of margarine and shortening.
- It is used in the industry for making paints and cosmetics.
- Roasted seeds are used to make a coffee-type drink.
- The seed cake that is left after oil is extracted is given to livestock as food (in countries that grow sunflowers).
- In the Soviet Union, the seed hulls are used for manufacturing ethyl alcohol, lining for plywood, and growing yeast.
- Dried stems have also been used for fuel, and the stems contain phosphorous and potassium, both of which can be composted and returned to the soil as a fertilizer.
© 2017 Mike and Dorothy McKenney