Helpful Herbs: Sunflowers

They are beautiful, tall, and easy to grow – but did you know that sunflowers are also great for your health?

Tall and elegant, sunflowers are always looking towards the sun.
Tall and elegant, sunflowers are always looking towards the sun.

Sunflowers grow in nearly every gardening zone and tolerate many different weather and soil conditions.  A native North American plant, sunflowers have been cultivated for centuries, but became more popular as a farmable crop in recent years.  When planting sunflowers, you can start seedlings in pots and then transfer to your garden, or sow seeds directly after danger of frost.  Some varieties grow up to 16 feet in height, while other varieties are shorter.  Sunflowers do not like waterlogged soil, but will survive in drought-like conditions.  They prefer to get plenty of fertilizer, or to be planted in a well composted area.

Sunflowers can be planted throughout the spring, but should be in ground by mid June.  They will bloom from July into September, depending on the variety and when you planted them.  The only major pests to watch out for are birds and squirrels which will take the seeds out of your sunflowers before you get a chance to harvest them – if this is an issue, some kind of netting is recommended to protect the flowers.

Sunflowers can, and often are, grown purely for decoration.  Many people leave them on the stalk throughout the season as a bright compliment to a vegetable garden or to accentuate a flower bed.  Others will cut the heads and use them in bouquets around the house.  If you are growing them for their herbal benefits, however, you will probably want to harvest the seeds instead of the flowers.

A mammoth sunflower, about to bloom.
A mammoth sunflower, about to bloom.

To harvest sunflower seeds, wait until the flower has completed blooming and has started to dry out on the stalk.  The back of the head should start to change from green to brown, and the petals will have fallen off of the blossom.  You can further dry the seeds by hanging them in a cool, dark, dry place for a week or two after cutting them off the stalk.  Cut the flowers off right at the base of the head.  The seeds should easily be removed by rubbing with your fingers.

You can use sunflower seeds as a garnish in recipes or save them to feed the birds during winter, or keep them to start your own flowers in the spring.  If you want to keep them as a snack, you can roast them for 30 or 40 minutes at 300 degrees and then mix with melted butter and salt for ultimate tastiness.  You can also turn your sunflower seeds into cooking oil to replace the store bought kind.  You simply need a seed oil extractor, or grinder, to mash up the seeds and separate them from the oil.

Sunflowers are also a great plant to attract and aid honeybees.
Sunflowers are also a great plant to attract and aid honeybees.

Why go to all the trouble of roasting or extracting the oil from your sunflower seeds?  While the plants are worthwhile to grow even if you are just using them for decoration, sunflower seeds are what we have started to refer to as a “super food”.  They are high in proteins and carbohydrates, which help to give you an energy boost.  They are full of powerful antioxidants, and have very low levels of cholesterol and sodium.  They’ve been proven to help reduce the risk of stroke and cardiovascular diseases, while strengthening bones and muscles.  In short, sunflower seeds seem to have all of the good things that our bodies need, and very little of the bad.

Whether for visual pleasure, to feed the birds, or for your body’s health, sunflowers are an easy addition to any garden that will smile with flowers all summer long and keep you fit and healthy once they have gone by.


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Questions? Feel free to leave a comment!

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