When the first Europeans arrived in America, they were surprised and delighted to see sunflowers growing near settlements everywhere they went. Some were perennial species of Helianthus, while others were the same annual species I grow in my garden. Actually, the sunflowers grow themselves. All I do is provide them with space.
Plant historians think sunflowers have been domesticating themselves by pleasing gardeners for more than 4,000 years. Annual sunflowers quickly make themselves at home in disturbed soil, and because of their fast growth rate and impressive height, they can often rise above competing weeds. They are also natural self-sowers. As the seed heads mature, seeds break off a few at a time and fall to the ground. Others are dropped in unexpected places by birds, which consider sunflowers seeds a great delicacy.
Upright or Branching?
Like many plants native to America, sunflowers did a bit of traveling before plant breeders discovered them and made them better. In the case of sunflowers, it was Russian botanists who took up the cause after discovering that oil pressed from the seeds could be consumed during Lent, when butter and lard were forbidden by the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, sunflower oil is an essential ingredient in potato chips and other snack foods. In the kitchen, it can make a nice change of pace from olive oil.
Most sunflowers grown for their edible seeds are upright plants that produce one huge flower. The blossom often turns toward the sun during the course of a day, at least until it becomes heavy with seeds. Then there are branching varieties that develop several lateral branches, so they produce flowers over a period of several weeks.
Some are small enough to grow in containers, but I like the really big ones that tower over my head. Tall branching varieties like 'Moonwalker' form a wall of bright blossoms, and the popular 'Lemon Queen' variety is being used by the Great Sunflower Project, which would like to see bee-friendly sunflowers growing in every garden. Bees of all types love sunflowers, so they are a great crop for pollinators and butterflies, too.
Despite my lifelong love of sunflowers, I could not justify making space for them in the veggie garden until invasive brown marmorated stink bugs appeared in my area. Supposedly the bugs will go to sunflowers before they approach other garden crops, which at least gives you some warning. So far, no stink bugs. I think they are waiting for fall so they can come into my house.
I allow the weighty heads to ripen on the plants so I can offer them as treats to wild birds and my chickens during the cold winter months. If you pay attention, seed-eating birds like goldfinches will make a great party of telling tell you when to harvest sunflowers – usually about a week after the last petals wither. The heads often contain between one and two thousand seeds, and need to be thoroughly dried before storage. After harvesting sunflowers, I dry them outdoors in covered shade for a couple of weeks, and then finish them with an hour or two in a warm oven.
Of course, this time of year I mostly admire my sunflowers, and cut huge Van Gogh bouquets for anyone who wants them. Perfect individual flowers get displayed on my table, and so many wild bees visit the flowers that cutting must be done early or late or I end up with bees in my hair or in my house.
If you like everything about sunflowers but their tendencies to reseed and shed pollen, you can grow sunflowers that are male-sterile, so they produce no pollen and no viable seeds. Many seed catalogues offer the Procut, Sunrich or Sunbright variety series for cutting, and they won't leave behind seeds that will come to life the following season.
Personally I would find this disappointing because part of the fun of growing sunflowers is seeing where they pop up from year to year. The unwanted ones go into the compost. What more could a gardener want?
By Barbara Pleasant