Sunday, June 15, 2008

Apple #323: Sunflowers

It's kind of difficult to think of another Daily Apple topic at the moment, since Tim Russert's unexpected heart attack and death. Lots of people have been stopping by here to read my entry about him and to look at the pictures I'd posted, and some people even posted their own very gracious, moving comments in remembrance of him. Like so many people, I'm shocked and saddened to lose someone who contributed so much to our country's discourse, and did so in a way that was never smarmy or vitriolic but always respectful, decent, and human.

But he was also indefatigable when it came to his job. Thoroughly prepared, reliable, and unflinching. So, taking my cue from him, I will press on.

After some thought, I decided to do today's entry about sunflowers. My friend Mike likes them. They're huge and they seem to be entirely positive and pretty as well as useful. So sunflowers, it is.

The Elite Sun variety of sunflowers
(Photo from Buckingham Nurseries)

  • Sunflowers generally grow to be 8 to 15 feet tall.

This man's Sawtooth Sunflowers can grow up to 20 feet tall.
(Photo from Bluestem Nursery)

  • The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas. It is also the national flower of Russia.
  • Kansas' climate suits the sunflower perfectly: it likes open, grassy prairie areas, lots of sun, and while it likes a good amount of water, it can also survive periods of drought.
  • Sunflowers do not like the cold, though, and the first frost will kill them.
  • Sow new seeds after the last frost, and in 90 to 100 days, the plant will be mature.
  • Also when you sow your seeds, make sure the plants will be 2 to 2-1/2 feet apart. If you're growing the big ones, you'll want to stake them so they don't fall over.
  • In six months, the plant can reach 8 to 12 feet high. That makes sunflowers one of the fastest-growing plants.

One really enormous sunflower.
(Photo from Renee's Garden, where you can find lots of tips about growing super-huge sunflowers.)

  • One word of caution: some people are allergic to the sunflower's leaves and stems, and may develop a rash.
  • One wild sunflower head is actually 1,000 to 2,000 individual flower heads joined at a single base. Cultivated sunflowers have only a single head.

The wild sunflower, or the true Helianthus annuus (and also a bug). The center of the wild sunflower is not as huge or densely packed with seeds as the cultivated varieties.
(Photo from the Western New Mexico University)

  • The wild sunflower is one of four major crops that are native to North America (the others are blueberries, cranberries, and pecans).
  • All cultivated sunflowers are derived from the wild sunflower (Helianthus annuus), and some of the cultivated sunflowers can vary tremendously in size and color.

One type of cultivated sunflower, the Earth Walker. This variety will grow to about 9 feet, and you can eat the seeds -- and the flowers, too.
(1 packet of 30 seeds will cost you $1.47 from Thompson & Morgan's English seeds)

  • The flower's head will track the movement of the sun throughout the day. This trait is called heliotropism. This happens because the darker, unlit side grows slightly faster than the sunny side. That makes the head tilt toward the sun.
  • Native Americans used sunflowers for all kinds of things: roasted seeds, sunflower meal for baking or added to stews, a coffee-like beverage made from the hulls, dyes, face paint, cooking oil, hair oil, and medicinal treatments.
  • Europeans brought the sunflower with them to Europe, but it wasn't until the Russians started growing them as an edible crop that the rest of the Europeans did so, too. Today, Russia is the world's largest producer of sunflower oil.
      • One variety of the sunflower, the Russian Mammoth, is one of the oldest surviving cultivated types of sunflowers, known to have been sold by seed companies for at least 130 years.
      • In the US, three new types of sunflowers have recently been introduced, all of them for ornamental purposes.

Natural precision in the arrangement of the seeds
(Photo from In the Armchair)

  • The arrangement of the seeds in the head can be so precise, it inspired great mathematicians like Leonardo Fibonacci to study them. He discovered that the seeds are grow according to a precise ratio which he called the Golden Ratio. He arrived at this ratio using a pretty simple method, but the number works out to be 1.6180339. All kinds of stuff in nature progresses according to this number, including the spirals you can see in the head of a sunflower.
  • In addition to being a mathematical beauty, the seeds are hugely useful to people and to animals:
      • Sunflower oil, made from the black seeds, is the world's second most valuable oil seed.
      • Birds like sunflower seeds too, but they prefer the black seeds, not the striped-hulled ones.

Black sunflower seeds, the kind without stripes, the kind used to make oil, and the kind birds like best.
(Photo from Wild Bird Seed UK)

      • If you don't want so many birds in your garden and you want to eat the seeds, plant the ones with striped seeds.

The striped seeds: the kind you want to eat
(Photo from Wild Bird Seed UK)

      • Some squirrels will even climb the plant to get to the seeds.
  • Here's what to do if you want to harvest the seeds to eat:
      • Wait until the head has turned brown in the fall. The back of the head should also be a banana-yellow and turning brown. You might have to wait until after the first frost before this happens.
      • If the birds are eating all your seeds and they're not mature enough for you yet, you can cut the head off the plant and hang it in some enclosed place like your garage until the head is mature. You might also want to put a loose sack or cheesecloth around the head to catch any seeds that fall off on their own.

A pile of sunflower heads ready for the seeds to be harvested.
(Photo from a blog called 1916 Home)

      • Once you've cut the head from the plant, rub the seeds free with your hand.
      • Put the unshelled seeds in some sort of container.
      • Make some salt water, dissolving 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of salt per two quarts of water. Pour in enough salt water to completely cover the seeds.
      • Soak the seeds in the salt water overnight.
      • Next day, drain the water and pat the seeds dry.
      • [If you don't want your seeds to be salted, you can skip the soaking process and go straight to the roasting]
      • Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F.
      • Spread the unshelled seeds evenly on a cookie sheet or shallow pan.
      • Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until golden brown, stirring occasionally.
      • A slight crack will often form on the length of the seeds as they roast. Taste to make sure they're roasted fully.
      • Store in an airtight container.
      • If you're going to eat them immediately, you can also roast the seeds with a cup of melted butter poured on top. Like popcorn!
  • According to what I've seen, it looks like hulling the seeds is kind of a painstaking process. You can't take the hulls off before the seeds are roasted anyway, so once you've roasted the seeds with the shell on, it's up to you if you want to "crack & eat" or try to split them one by one by hand. Commercial producers have very sophisticated machines to hull the seeds, so unless you want to buy a machine like that, you're hulling the seeds one by one, probably with your teeth.

A sunflower seed hull-removing machine, available for purchase from China. You probably don't have room for one of these in your kitchen.
(Photo from ECPlaza)

  • By the way, eating the hulls isn't bad for you. They're almost all fiber. The only possible drawback is that a piece of the hull might poke your innards on the way down, but this has not happened as far as anyone at the National Sunflower Association knows, so you're probably safe eating the hulls.

Carpenter bee visiting a sunflower
(Photo from the Great Sunflower Project)

      • They'll give you free sunflower seeds, and all you have to do in return is, two afternoons per month, record the temperature, watch your plants, and write down when 5 bees visit one of your plants.
      • You only need to keep watch for 30 minutes, because if 5 bees haven't stopped by in those 30 minutes, the Sunflower Project wants to know that too.

Floridata, Helianthus annus (Common names: sunflower)
Sherry Rindels, Iowa State University's Horticulture & Home Pest News, Sunflowers, April 26, 1996
National Sunflower Association, All About Sunflower FAQs and How to Roast In-Shell Sunflower Seeds
Netfirms, Complete Guide to Growing Sunflowers
Mrs. Davenport's Class, Facts about Sunflowers
Library Thinkquest, Fibonacci Ratios


  1. Hello Apple Lady!

    I really enjoyed this entry. My step dad grows sunflowers all the time. I'm going to tell him about the Great Sunflower Project. He would love to participate because he and my mom already sit in the front yard and look at their sunflowers.

  2. I'd love to participate in the Great Sunflower Project, too. But I know my neighbor's dog would dig up the plants as soon as they dared to poke half a leaf above ground. Ask your step dad to grow one for me, will you?



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