Helianthus annuus, or the common sunflower, is an absolute joy to grow in a garden. It’s not just for beauty, there are several reasons why to grow sunflowers.
Sunflowers are actually one of my favorite flowers for the reason that not only can I get food from them, but they’re incredibly easy to grow, they’re very hardy, and they’re just enjoyable to look at. Though they’re native west of the Mississippi River where they can often be spotted growing in waste places and roadsides, they can still be grown as an annual throughout most of the rest of the US as well.1 In fact, every gardener should grow sunflowers as a step toward creating a homestead.
Not convinced? Let’s cover…
Why to Grow Sunflowers (Prepper’s Perspective)
Due to their ease of growing, prolificacy, and both food and medicinal value, I believe sunflowers have a lot of potential for the survivalist’s garden, and should be a crop that you give strong thought towards producing for yourself.
Sunflower Food Uses
Booker T. Washington delved into the food capabilities of the humble peanut, ending up with dozens of recipes that he was able to create with the peanut being the primary ingredient. Had he decided to, I believe that the same could have been accomplished with the sunflower.
Of course, the chief thing that comes to mind when we begin talking about the edibility of sunflowers are the seeds. Sunflower seeds are a great source of nutrition, with a good amount of healthy fat and protein.
What you may not have known however is that by boiling the crushed kernels, you can end up with a light vegetable oil that can be useful for cooking. If this is a route that you would like to go, just know that not all varieties of sunflower are created equal when it comes to harvesting sunflower seed oil. Though you’ll be able to harvest oil from any sunflower’s seeds, there are cultivars available that have specifically been bred for this purpose.
I grow black oil sunflowers, and I can attest to their being a very high oil content within that variety. I typically use it for microgreens, leaving the seeds to soak overnight in a small mason jar before I add them to the dirt tray (this helps improve the germination speed). By the very next morning, the water that the seeds are sitting in has turned a dark yellow.
You can also make a coffee substitute out of the roasted shells, should you be so inclined. It’s a decaf coffee – so it’s not going to help wake you up any – but if you were in a disaster situation and you were tired of drinking just plain old water, such might be a way to add some variety to your diet.
As I mentioned above, you can also use your seed to grow microgreens, what has fast become my favorite form of salad. Sunflower sprouts taste great when tossed with bleu cheese crumbles, craisins or blueberries, olive oil, and honey-glazed pecans. They’re truly a rather unique dish that not a lot of people know about. Those who do end up paying top dollar for little bags of such in specialty grocery stores.
Lastly, sunflowers have the potential to be utilized for flour as well, by grinding the seeds (without the hulls, mind you) into a powder, and then using it for baking purposes.2
Sunflower Medicinal Uses
Like most wild flora, there are actually some potential medicinal uses for sunflowers as well. And though I can’t speak to their efficacy or safety, in the past the Indians used a flower tea for both lung ailments and malaria, while it is said that the leaf tea is an astringent and useful for high fevers. Poultices have been made before to help with snake and spider bites, while the seeds and leaves are said to be both a diuretic and expectorant.
The one caveat that I have been made aware of however, is that the pollen and plant extracts can cause allergic reactions in some people, so that’s something to be wary of, perchance you have issues with allergies.3
Again, none of this is my giving medicinal advice, but rather my speaking towards what sunflowers have been used for in the past medically speaking.
Maybe you just want to harvest the flowers for aesthetic purposes. Nothing wrong with that. It’s likely the top reason why to grow sunflowers. If that’s your end goal, there are two main things that you need to know. First, you’re going to want to harvest your blooms as soon as the green covering begins to unfurl. The flowers will finish blooming inside, and that way you’ll be able to keep the damage from cucumber beetles and other pests who enjoy nibbling holes through the petals to a minimum.
The flower will do just fine when the stem is placed in a vase of pure water. Most of them will last between 5-13 days inside, depending on the cultivar.
Sunflower Growing Tips
When it comes to growing your own sunflowers, just know that there are two main varieties out there: single stemmed and branching varieties. Either can do well, but for the longest season of harvest, you’re going to want a branching variety. Though they’re typically smaller than the single stemmed cultivars, you’ll get more flowers per plant than you would otherwise.
If you’re focusing on wild sunflowers rather than cultivated species, be aware that they produce copious amounts of pollen, which would be great if you have beehives nearby and want to focus on the health of your pollinators, but may prove an annoyance if you are looking at growing your own flowers for their food and aesthetic purposes.
Sunflowers are very drawn to daylight. If you’ve ever grown them, you can likely attest to the fact that it doesn’t take long for your entire crop of them to soon be craning their necks in the same direction to gather the maximum amount of sunlight. Daylight neutral varieties are the cultivars that you are going to want to find if you have an early or late growing season. They will do well regardless of how long or short your day is. If you end up planting a daylight sensitive variety at the wrong time of year it can result in mainly vegetation being produced (leaves) or in quick flowering on short stems.
Because of the sheer size of most sunflower varieties, they require quite a bit of fertilization as well. Adding compost to your soil before you plant your seeds will therefore greatly assist their growth.4
Why to Grow Sunflowers Summary
Sunflowers are an incredibly versatile plant, are incredibly easy to grow, and are just pleasant to look at. Farmers have grown them for years, and finding sunflowers is another strategy to finding abandoned gardens.
What’s not to like? I highly recommend looking at growing some of your own this upcoming growing season.
Are there other uses of sunflowers you know of that we didn’t cover? Have you tried any of the above methods? Do you have a favorite variety of sunflower? Let us know in the comments below!
Sources and Books for Further Reading
- Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide p374
- Edible Wild Plants p88
- Medicinal Plants and Herbs p147
- The Flower Farmer 16-17
- Feature photo credit: shutterbusterbob Sunflowers via photopin (license).
is sunflower oil considered more “healthy”, than other vegetable oils? I know some favor olive oil over all others. others will say that corn oil, or soybean oil, aren’t “good for you”. (or especially coconut oil) (I’ll use whatever I can get if I’m trying to make biodiesel, but I wonder whether to use one or another when cooking “french fries”)
I’ve attached a link you might find of some value. Read the comment below, it is something very interesting for you –
Thanks for the link, Jason.
Our babymakin days are long over in the irishdutchuncle household. (they had to break the mold to release number one son) still, it’s good information about the oil. oh the wonders of science…
much as I might need it, I won’t do “decaf” either because of the remaining chemical traces.
I won’t do decaf either – what’s the point?
When I get coffee in the mornings, sometimes they ask what kind I’d like. I’ll respond with – I like my coffee like my women, murky & bitter.
Sunbutter (sunflower butter) is a great substitute for peanut butter for those with peanut allergies.
Absolutely correct about sunflowers being a valuable crop. They don’t grow as well up here in the Pacific Northwest, though you can get lucky in some areas.
I’d like to posit that flax would be an excellent oil crop as well – grows easily. Although it is a bit more labor-intensive to get the seeds, the resulting linseed oil is an excellent chemical for use in a lot of things. As a bonus, you can use the stems to make linen.
Rape seed grows well east of the Cascades, you see a lot of it around the Spokane area.
Sunflowers turn into “mildew flowers” around my place, but we’re in a bit of a frost pocket and only about 200 yards from Puget Sound.
Canola oil and cold-pressed rapeseed oil are two very different things – please read this: http://nomegrown.blogspot.com/2012/02/rapeseed-oil-is-good-for-you.html I think rapeseed is one of the healthiest oils out there because it has such a high smoke point – and a perfect balance of omegas…
But you know, there’s also been a lot of talk recently about how saturated fats aren’t as bad as we first thought, and a deficiency of them may lead to alzheimers and all kinds of problems, with inflammation from processed UNsaturated fats actually causing heart disease… Still not sure where I am on the subject, but I’m incorporating more coconut oil (see http://coconutoil.com/) and butter into my diet now…
Anywaaaay. Sunflower oil is a pretty decent oil to use and has a relatively high smoke point. But I think the difference between cold-pressed and highly processed is what really makes the difference here.
Great info Naomi, thank you. Is rapeseed oil readily available & easy to find?
I’m in the UK and it’s common here. In the US I think it’s still called Canola but it’s the same plant – just look for cold-pressed (and organic to avoid GM). Loriva and BetterBody are two brands I know of. 🙂
The Russians have been growing sunflowers for this purpose for so long now that its cultural .
I’d never thought of Sunflower sprouts! I’m going to have to give that a try.
4 Oz of oil out of a pound of seeds sounds like it would be do-able on a small scale.
I have tried planting them several times. Squirrels find them and gnaw on the stems – plant falls over – squirrels get seeds.
Sunflowers grow extremely well here, the problem is squirrels and other animals decimate the plants before they reach maturity. The good news is the cat has improved the odds of the plants, especially sun flowers because the squirrels stay in the tree for most of the day. In a survival situation, I would simply kill as many tree rats as possible with the BB gun and let the cat take care of the rabbits, rats, and moles. Unlike the previous she just kills, she eats the mice and chipmunks.
We have found the big boxes of Davis sunflower seeds at SAMS a good bargain, the kids love them.
Sunflowers also irradiate radiated soil
These are pretty easy to grow for chicken feed. Tossing a handful on the ground every morning is something they really love.