In the Beginning
Sunflowers are ancient, almost mystical, plants. Native too both North and South America, sunflowers were cultivated as an important food staple by ancient peoples long before the New World was discovered by explorers. Highly regarded, Sunflowers were ritually revered as important religious and cultural symbols of strength and power. There were sacred ceremonies filled with sunflower stories, dances and songs.
A Brief Sunflower History
The easy-to-grow sunflower, a symbol of light, innocence and hope, never really caught the attention of the first settlers. Their focus was centered on more traditional crops from Europe and corn. Sunflowers returned from obscurity with the help of Russia’s Peter the Great who brought the seeds back from a trip to Holland.
Sunflowers were soon growing all across Russia by the mid-1700’s. Sunflowers soon became a Russian favorite and were highly regarded for snacks and oil. Sunflowers were researched and cultivated, and new varieties developed. The sunflower was proclaimed the national flower in Russia.
When the Mennonites, originating in Russia, arrived in Canada and eventually the United States in the late 1800’s, many of these new developments in sunflower horticulture helped to rekindle a new look on the old plants.
By 1980, the United States was one of the top major producers as sunflowers became important crops in Kansas , Minnesota, Texas, North and South Dakota. Some sunflowers were cultivated for their seeds, while others for the healthy oil produced. In 1903, Kansas was designated the “Sunflower State” as the sunflower was named as the state’s official flower.
Today, millions of home gardeners are planting plots and borders of brilliant sunflowers, for appearance, birds, bird seed for winter use, and home eating. Others use the ancient plants as a food source for the imperiled bees, which are attracted to the flowers, or the butterflies and a host of other beneficial insects. Some gardening organization advocate using the sunflowers as a trap crop for other not-so-good and harmful garden insects, which will likely be consumed by a wandering goldfinch or other bird species. Goldfinches in particular are attracted to the flowers.
The Great Sunflower Project uses Lemon Queen Sunflowers to track the bees. Citizen researchers keep track of the number of bees which visit the flowers and send in the of the data which is used for research.
Sunflower Growing Tips
Today, there are numerous varieties of sunflowers available for home gardens in a wide range of colors and heights; some are perennial, others are annual. There are varieties which can be successfully grown in containers. The original wild sunflower has many branches and multiple smaller seed heads whereas more domesticated sunflowers will have the more common and larger single head.
There is no mystery to growing the sunflower. Naturally, sunflowers need full sunlight to do their best. They should also be located in an area free of high winds and with good drainage. The better the soil, the better the plants will thrive. Sunflowers thrive in well composted soil.
Depending on the gardening zone, sunflowers can be directly seeded in the soil after all danger of frost. They can also be stared indoors in pots and placed in a sunny window. Care should be taken when removing the seedlings from the pot to the soil not to disturb the roots. Sunflowers can take periods of dry weather, but if dry conditions persist, the plants should be watered. A fun, family project is to measure the growth of the plant every week; they are rapid growers.
Sunflower Harvest Thoughts
There are, depending on what the gardener wants to harvest, several options. One would be to let the birds and other wildlife have their fill. Or, for future use, when the seed head begins to brown, cut it with about two inches of stem left and hang it to dry. If for human consumption, there are several methods to save the seeds, including covering the seed head with cheesecloth. A word of caution from personal experience when drying the seeds; make sure the seeds are placed in a rodent proof container when ready for storage. Mice and other creatures have an affinity for the seeds.
While the ancient peoples ate sunflower seeds and used the flowers in rituals, today we know much more about their health benefits. Sunflower seeds are healthy and contain high levels of protein and are viewed as a high energy food for human. Sunflower seeds can be used as a healthy snack or used in a variety of recipes or in salads.
Sunflowers are ancient and cheerful plants which serve a variety of purposes, some with a modern twist. Sunflowers, inexpensive, healthy and easy to grow, have mystical attributes known to many throughout the ages.