By Lois Hoffman
No flower says “summer” quite like sunflowers. They are the original happy flower, especially when you see a whole field of them turn their “faces” toward the sun and follow it through the day.
Characterized by their big, daisy-like faces of signature yellow petals and brown centers laiden with seeds, it is hard to feel sad when in their cheery presence. They are grown commercially just south of where I live and it is well worth the short drive to just see a whole field sporting these bright faces.
Besides brightening your day, sunflowers are pretty versatile as virtually every part of them can be utilized from the seeds to the stems. Although the 16-foot varieties are what comes to mind when sunflowers are mentioned, there are shorter and smaller varieties that only reach heights of 18 inches. But, it is the taller ones that usually make the statement. On top of their beauty and versatility, they are relatively easy to grow.
As their name suggests, sunflowers like direct sunlight and lots of it, up to 6 to 8 hours a day. They thrive in long, hot summers. They have long tap roots that need to stretch out so they require loose, well-drained soil that is not compacted. Be sure that each plant has loosened soil to a depth of two feet and a diameter of three feet.
They are heavy feeders so keep the soil nutrient-rich with organic matter, composted manure or granular fertilizer placed 8 inches deep in the soil. Although they like to be fertilized, avoid over feeding as that can cause stems to break in fall when the seed heads are heavy. As far as watering, water deeply once a week with several gallons of water.
Because of their sheer size, most varieties require some sort of support. This can be accomplished by planting by a fence or building or by staking. Planting by buildings will also shelter them from one of their worst enemies, the wind.
Although they are relatively insect and disease-free, critters pose definite risks. When first planted, birds tend to try and get at the seed, so netting over planted areas may be to your advantage. Later in the year, when the seeds are forming in the heads, predators such as birds, squirrels and deer try to get a free lunch from the heads so you may have to put barriers up.
Photo by Getty Images/minokku.
If you have the room, a fun thing to do for the kids is to make a “sunflower tower.” To do this, plant the sunflower rows in a circle, square, rectangle or triangle that has about 8 feet of space inside of the rows. Use string and stakes to mark and anchor the “wall” of sunflowers as they grow. You can even go whole hog, so to speak, and plant morning glories in the rows that will vine over the top and create a roof and plant clover inside the space to create a carpet of white snow. It will make a fun place for the kids to play, have a tea party or even a unique, quiet spot in which to enjoy some peace and tranquility.
Sunflowers make impressive indoor bouquets that usually last a week. Cut the main stem just before the flower head has had a chance to open to encourage side blooms. Just be sure to cut in the morning because those cut during the middle of the day tend to wilt.
Harvesting the seeds in fall when the plants are mature is a fun and beneficial activity. If you are just providing the seeds for the birds, this task is extremely easy. Just cut the flower head off early before the seeds have fully matured, leaving 4 inches of stem and hang the whole head upside down to dry. When dry, the whole head can be set out as a bird feeder in itself.
When the back of the flower head turns from green to yellow is a sign that the seeds are maturing. When the head turns brown, they are ready to be harvested. To remove the seeds, you can rub the heads over an old washboard or something similar to loosen them. For a delicious and nutritious snack, soak them overnight in a gallon of salt water and then dry them in a 250 degree oven for 4 to 5 hours and then store in an airtight container.
When cutting the heads, don’t forget to save the stems. Dried, they make excellent kindling for the fireplace or bonfire. Some varieties are produce small, black seeds that are used in cooking oil, margarine, cosmetics, animal feed and are excellent for attracting songbirds.
Sunflower oil is becoming one of the more popular healthy oils on the market. It has been touted to lower cholesterol, fight athlete’s foot and boost heart health, among other things. Because it is high in vitamin E, it is often found in cosmetics it give a healthy and natural glow to the skin. The vitamin E also aids in increased reduction of scars and quicker wound healing. A good way to get these benefits are to eat the seeds which are like tiny superfoods.
So, the next time you enjoy a field of golden sunflowers, remember that they are more than just a pretty face.
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