Sunflowers Are Funflowers

 Nancy Gmeiner
Adams County Master Gardener

When I see sunflowers, they always make me smile. It reminds me of the smile icon with the yellow face that you see all around. Besides looking great in arrangements and wreaths, they produce kernels that can be used in cooking and baking such as breads, dips and garnishes.

About 3000 years ago, in North America, their seeds were found in clay vessels. About 150 species make up the genus Helianthus which is their botanical name. Helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower. The French word for sunflower is "Tournesol (turn with the sun). Their colors, such as yellow, gold, bronze, mahogany, purple and orange mimic the sun's hues. Scientists use the work heliatropic to refer to sunflowers ability to face the sun from morning to night. Sunflowers thrive in the United States on grassy plains, sandy woodlands and moist bottom-lands. They range form 2 feet to 10 feet. Each bloom is a multiple flower belonging to the daisy family, Compositae.

The nourishment found in sunflower heads attracts bees. Pioneers used a mix of sunflower roots mixed with other roots for medicines for snakebites and rheumatism and relied on sunflower poultices to heal burns; used roots in medicinal teas and washes. After harvesting seeds, the dry stalks were broken up into sections and used as kindling or fire starters. They also scattered the seeds to eager hens and fed leaves to cattle.

In the 1500's sunflowers appeared in Europe. The Spanish were more impressed with their beauty than their usefulness. In Russian, Peter the Great, in the 1700's introduced sunflowers to farmers who were lucky to have black soil and some of their plants grew to 15 feet tall.

The first commercial sunflower plantation was in the Ukraine in 1835. The Russian name for sunflowers was "Podsolnechiniks". Europeans reached for sunflower seeds the way we snack on peanuts.

In parts of Asia, manufacturers use sunflower oil as a packing agent for canned fish and a carrier for pigment in paint. They process the fibrous stalks into paper and burn the oil in lamps. The Russians cut the bloom heads into chunks, mix with soap chips and vodka and set in the sun for 9 days. When finished, they rub this on plagued bodies with rheumatism. Sunflowers are the national flower of Russia.

The citron-yellow oil pressed from oil type sunflowers seeds is low in saturated fats and high in polyunsaturated fats. Some seeds are marketed as wild bird food. Sunflower blooms have insecticidal properties and at one time people grew them near their homes to protect against malaria.

If you desire to plant sunflower seeds, plant after all frost is past in April or May. Some of the varieties that you may wish to try are: "Sungold" that looks like a chrysanthemum and grows to six feet. "Mammoth Russian" grows to ten feet or more whereas "Sunspot" grows to two feet. "Valentine" grows to five feet. "Velvet Queen" has deep burgundy blooms and grows to six feet.

The tallest sunflower on record stretched to twenty-five feet and 5 and one half inches tall and grows in the Netherlands. The largest sunflower head measures thirty-two and one half inches in diameter and was grown in Canada. The shortest mature sunflower on record was two and two inches tall from Oregon using bonsai technique.

Sunflower kernel contain and dozen vitamins and minerals. Each kernel is rich in iron twenty-five percent protein and is cholesterol free.

The following is a recipe for "Gold Nuggets"

  • 8 oz. Dried apricots, chopped
  • 2 cups of flaked coconuts
  • cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup finely chopped roasted sunflower seed kernels (unsalted)

Mix the first three ingredients in a small bowl. Shape into one inch balls. Roll each in sunflower kernels. Let stand until firm. Chill. Yield two dozen nuggets.

Sunflower Herb Dip

  • 2/3 cup plain yogurt
  • cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tsp. Chives
  • 2 tsp. Parsley flakes
  • tsp. Dry mustard
  • tsp. Garlic powder
  • tsp. Paprika
  • cup sunflower kernels

Blend in food processor until sun kernels are chopped. Chill overnight serve with crackers, chips or raw vegetables. .

Hope you enjoy the history, planting and eating.

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Read other articles by Nancy Gmeiner