Summer isn't summer without sunflowers


By Ted Manzer

Friday, August 9, 2019

We don’t grow many sunflowers commercially in this part of the country, but they are one of our most recognizable flowers. Many folks grow them on a small scale. There are so many reasons to grow sunflowers. They are beautiful, birds love them, they have medicinal qualities and they’re edible.

Sunflowers are easy to grow. They aren’t fussy about soil type but don’t thrive in wet acid soil. They require full sun and grow well in hot weather. They also benefit from high fertility. Sometimes it’s good to fertilize sunflowers frequently if soils are very sandy.

The only real problem growing these flowers is that birds will sometimes dig out seeds before they germinate. Deer eat them too. In our area, sunflowers have few insect problems except in the fall, when grasshoppers can defoliate them. Our high humidity often makes plants susceptible to powdery mildew.

Sunflowers are interesting in that their flowers turn in response to the direction of the sun. They certainly aren’t the only plant to do this, but since flowers are large it’s very noticeable.

Sunflower fans know that there are different types to choose from. There are tall sunflowers, short ones, plants with large solitary blooms and plants with many smaller ones. Most sunflowers are yellow to orange with a dark brown to black center. However, they can be a multitude of colors.

There are basically two types of sunflower seeds. Confection seeds are the large striped ones commonly packaged for human snack food and are often eaten at sporting events. There are a multitude of the smaller oilseed types. These are often a major component of wild bird mixes. They are also used to make sunflower seed oil we buy in grocery stores.

Sunflower seeds continue to gain popularity. They have twice the protein of walnuts or pecans and they are very high in Vitamin E. They are also high in fiber and low in carbohydrates. They also are an option for people allergic to tree nuts or peanuts.

Seeds aren’t the only part of the sunflower that’s edible. People can cook and eat the leaves, and the flower petals make a great tea and are colorful on a salad. Too many can make the salad a little bitter.

Sunflowers also have a history as medicinal plants. They have been used for sore throats and to treat arthritis. Sunflower oil has even been used to treat athlete’s foot.

The main reason most people grow sunflowers is because they’re pretty, dramatic, and they attract birds and other wildlife. Sunflowers can provide incredible color. That’s probably one reason why so many children are fascinated by them. Seed heads are easy to dry and save for bird feeders.

Sunflowers also are versatile in that they can be cut and used in flower arrangements. Blooms often last for a week. The yellow-to-orange types seem to last longer in a vase than do many of the other colors.

I love seeing them along the roadsides. I wish folks planted more of them. Summer just isn’t summer without sunflowers.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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