Grow Sunflowers: Pretty and Practical!

Backyard Giant Sunflower

Love those big long lasting sunflowers! This was grown in the back yard and after the flower faded we ate the sunflower seeds. It is a “win-win” flower.

Midge West

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The quintessential summer flower, sunflowers (Helianthus) are a truly native American plant and are honored as the state flower in both Kansas and Nebraska. There are about 70 species of sunflowers. Most are native to the Great Plains, Mexico, and Peru.

The Hopi Indians, who believed the sunflower warmed the earth and brought rain, carved wooden sunflowers as sacred objects to help enrich their harvests. They used the seeds for food, ground them into meal and flour, and used the oil for cooking, as a salve, to soften leather, and as a hair conditioner. The stems provided fiber for making cords and rope and the leaves were smoked like tobacco. They even bred a purple-seeded variety to use for dye.

Ethnobotanists think the sunflower may have predated other Mesoamerican crops such as corn, beans, and squash. Sunflower seeds and oil were important crops for the Incas in Peru who created images of the sunflower out of gold. The Spanish brought sunflowers back to Europe with them in the 16th century where they were viewed more as a curiosity than as a food plant. In Russia they recognized the importance of sunflowers as a major oilseed crop and by the 18th century they grew them in abundance.

Pretty and Practical

Sunflowers continue to be an important oilseed crop worldwide. Many of them are used for birdseed but most are processed into vegetable oil. The green stalks are chopped like silage and used as cattle feed. The seeds and green foliage are favorite foods of many birds, mammals, insects, and butterflies.

Of course humans love the seeds too, when we can beat the birds to the harvest. The tasty seeds contain calcium, phosphorus, a wealth of vitamins, and unsaturated fatty acids. To collect them before the birds and other seed-loving critters, cover the ripening head with a loose-fitting paper bag. They are ready for harvest when the petals wilt, the seeds turn brown, and the backside of the flowerhead turns yellow. When the seeds are fully ripe, rub two flowerheads together to loosen the seeds. Be sure to leave a few heads in the garden for the birds.

Turn Turn Turn

One of the most interesting qualities of the sunflower is their heliotropism—they turn to face the sun as it travels across the sky. Many flowers have this tendency to move toward the sun but in sunflowers it is very pronounced, In the morning, when the plant is in bud, it faces east. During the day motor cells in the stem tilt the bud to follow the course of the sun across the sky so that it receives maximum sunlight. By evening it will be facing west. Overnight it goes back to the east awaiting the rising sun. Researchers have found that even if the buds are removed, the bare stem will still track the sun. Once the flowers have opened completely, they stop moving and face east.

Easy to grow, sunflowers are more popular now than ever. Open any seed catalog and you'll find two or three pages devoted exclusively to sunflowers. Along with the tried and true heirloom varieties there are lots of “new and improved” ones. They are available in a wide range of colors from white to black and sizes from 16 foot tall giants to 18 inch high dwarfs. Some grow as a single stem while others are multi-branching. There are even double-flowering ones with multiple petals. If you don't already grow sunflowers, put them on your list for next year.

Learn more on our Sunflower Growing Guide.

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

Reader Comments

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Mystery pest cutting sunflower seedlings in half

I grow sunflowers in Florida every year. I start them in peat pots, then plant in the ground when they are 14 to 18 inches and a thick enough stem due to a pest that clips the seedlings if they are under 10 inches. It just cuts them in half about 4 to 6 inches from the ground. It doesn't eat or remove the piece it cut. I find them laying on the ground 2 or 3 at a time. I have rabbits, squirrels and crows but haven't actually seen which one is doing the damage. Any idea on what is clipping the flowers and how to prevent it?

sunflowers

What are the native plants to Kansas city, Kansas. 66106 area

Hi! I have grown sunflowers

Hi!

I have grown sunflowers for a few years now - love 'em! But last year they started to become a bit deformed and a lot of the flower heads don't even have petals, and some don't ever open and end up looking like a sickly bloated mutant - not very pretty! This year I only saw maybe 2 normal flowers. I have been growing them in about the same spot, but not exactly,for a couple years. Last year when the problem started it was on 2 different patches in 2 parts of our property. What do you think could be causing it, a pest or disease? And what should we do? I want to grow more sunflowers not less! I also saw the problem in all the varieties I grew which was at least 6.

I’d bet on an insect, both

I’d bet on an insect, both the seed maggot and sunflower midge feed on developing buds causing them to produce deformed flowers. They are quite tiny and go unnoticed until the damage is done. They can overwinter in plant debris so be sure to clean up the garden well and remove any sunflower parts from your yard. Don’t just throw them in the compost pile. Try planting a little later than usual to avoid peak time for the insect populations. This may help lessen the damage. They are hard to kill, even with insecticides, because they are protected by the plant tissue they have burrowed into.

Used to grow them, now

Used to grow them, now neighbor feeds squirrels and we are over run. They get them before the buds even open

I grow Sunflowers every year

I grow Sunflowers every year in my front yard flower beds. They are beautiful. People even stop and ask if they can take pictures of their children with them.

My cousin's mammoth sunflower

My cousin's mammoth sunflower grew to maturation but every shell was empty! No seeds at all! Is this a pollination issue? So strange! Thanks for the neat article!

There could be several

There could be several factors - dry weather, poor pollination, or sunflower moth larvae could be tunnelling into the seeds and eating the insides. Some types of sunflowers are bred not to produce pollen so their seeds are sterile.

Like your photos. Are they

Like your photos. Are they yours? I planted a bunch this year and lots didn't come up. What do you think happened?

Thanks Joe! Yes they are my

Thanks Joe! Yes they are my pictures of our sunflowers. If you are planting the seeds directly in the ground there are plenty of seed-eating critters out there that will make off with them. We start ours in pots in the greenhouse to give them a safe start and then transplant them outside.

Are these sunflowers annuals

Are these sunflowers annuals or perennials? I keep hearing different opinions and am confused.

I had wondered that same

I had wondered that same thing. I planted sunflowers last year. When the season was over, we pulled the stalks out of the garden bed. I decided not to plant them this spring, but I have more sunflowers then I had last year. I was told that the seeds fall out of the flower heads and keep coming back.

The ones in this article are

The ones in this article are annuals. They bloom from seed the first year and then they are done. There are perennial flowers in the helianthus family but they do not have the big flowers with huge seedheads.

Also, how do you keep

Also, how do you keep squirrels from getting them?

How do you keep deer from

How do you keep deer from eating them? Ours start to grow and they're gone!

Deer and squirrels are a

Deer and squirrels are a major problem! We grow our sunflowers in a fenced area to keep the deer away and start the seeds in pots giving them a headstart to withstand the squirrels and chipmunks.

Hi Robin, I enjoyed this

Hi Robin, I enjoyed this article. I read that wildflowers do not follow the Sun. Is this true? Are wild sunflowers and cultivated sunflowers different?

Glad you like the article

Glad you like the article Jamie! I think there are wildflowers that also track the sun especially ones that grow in cold climates. I have read that alpine poppies, snow buttercups, mountain avens, and heart-leaved arnica are all heliotropic. They have a short season to grow in and need to make the best use of the sun.

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