There are few flowers that say summer like sunflowers. Their bright yellow color and sturdy stalks make me smile and there is something magical about standing next to a flower that is taller than I am. These happy giants produce amazing cut flowers and seeds for birds (or us) to eat.
Sunflowers are native to North America. Evidence suggests that Native Americans cultivated the plant for food and medicinal purposes in the American west as far back as 3000 B.C. Archaeology suggests that it's possible that sunflowers were cultivated before corn. Sunflowers were taken back to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 1500's. Their popularity grew in Europe and by the early 1700's there was an English patent for extracting sunflower oil. The Russians continued experimenting with sunflower cultivation and began oil production on a commercial scale in about 1830. Within a short time they were growing over 2 million acres of sunflowers to produce oil and seeds. Russian sunflower seeds came back to the U.S. in the 1880's with "Mammoth Russian" being offered in seed catalogs.
The most well known sunflowers are the tall yellow ones, but sunflowers come in all many sizes and in flower colors from yellow to orange to rust color. New dwarf varieties make great container plants or can be planted in the front of landscape beds. Sunflowers are annuals, so they need to be planted every year. Seeds can be sown directly in well drained soil after the danger of frost has passed in the spring. Sunflowers are heavy feeders, so a soil enriched with good compost will provide needed nutrients. If you plant tall varieties, space plants about 30" apart to give them room to grow. Fertilize and water as needed until plants are established. Once plants are established, they are drought tolerant. Sunflowers need about 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day and a long, hot summer to flourish. If you plant them in a spot that is sheltered from strong winds, you may not have to stake them.
Some varieties, such as "Mammoth", produce better seeds for eating. If you want to grow seeds to eat, you can cover the seed heads with cloth held on with a twist tie to protect it from birds until you are ready to cut them. Heads are ready to cut when the back of the flower turns from green to yellow. Bring the cut heads indoors to dry and then remove the seeds with your fingers.
Sunflowers can be a fun first growing project for children. They grow from tiny seed to giant plant in a few short months and kids will enjoy watching birds eat the seeds or drying and eating them as a healthy snack. If you haven't tried sunflowers in a while, maybe it's time.
Dig It? It's Grow Time!