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Sunny Side Up

Sunflowers: Artists throughout history have captured their simple splendor, today’s tweens consume their seeds by the bagful, and they are often the first seeds a toddler’s pudgy fingers poke into the soil.

Sunflowers make up the genus Helianthus and contain about 67 species, ranging from having yellow petals to red. They grow anywhere from 3 to 15 feet high and the flower heads can measure from 3 to 14 inches in diameter.

The sunflower is native to the Americas and was used extensively by Native American Indians. The greatest medicinal use of the sunflower was for pulmonary afflictions. Dakota and Pawnee tribes would drink tea made of sunflower seeds for respiratory ailments, such as bronchitis and pleurisy.

Sunflowers have a wide diversity of uses such as oil for salad dressings and cooking, paint, cosmetics, a coffee-type drink, livestock feed and ethanol fuel. The Chinese used the fiber from the flower’s stems for fabrics and paper. Here in Louisiana we could follow the Netherlands’ lead and use the plant’s ability to absorb water from soil to reclaim flooded land. And, the mulch from sunflowers was even used to remove toxins from a pond after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

If you are considering growing sunflower this season, here are a few things to help your crop flourish.

Sunflowers do best in soil with lots of water holding capacity and drainage. Their roots grow deep and spread a lot, so they can stand a dry spell every now and then.

You should not over-water a sunflower 20 days before and 20 days after flowering. This might deform the flower heads. Also, test your soil to make sure you have potassium and phosphorus in it.

If you plant seeds in rows, space the seeds about 6 inches apart in a shallow trench between 1 and 2 inches deep. Depending on the variety, sunflowers will bloom anytime between 55 to 75 days after planting seeds. And be sure to sow new seeds every two to three weeks to enjoy continuous blooms.

Sunflowers generally do not require fertilizing, but it’s still probably a good idea to add some slow-acting granular fertilizer to especially poor soil. If you are growing a tall variety, it’s best to grow against a sunny wall or make sure to stake them. If you want to grow your flowers primarily for the seeds, the best variety to use is Mammoth Russian.

Something else to consider is that sunflower seeds, leaves and stems emit substances that inhibit the growth of certain other plants. They should be separated from potatoes and pole beans. Additionally, sunflower seeds regularly used as bird feed can leave toxins from the leftover seed hulls and may kill the grass below the feeder. Not to worry: It’s harmless to animals and people and the toxins eventually biodegrade in the soil.

To harvest the seeds before the squirrels and birds devour them all, cut off the seed heads with a foot or so of stem attached and hang in a dry place that is well-ventilated and protected from pests. Keep the harvested seed heads out of humidity to prevent spoilage from molds and let them dry for a few weeks. When the seeds are thoroughly dried, knock them loose by brushing them with your fingers or a brush or briskly rub two heads together. Allow the seeds to cure for a few more days. Store them in an airtight glass jar in the refrigerator to retain flavor.

As you plant your garden this spring you will be well-served to add this beautiful plant that can elegantly grace your table and also be ever-so delicious and nutritious.



South Dakota is the top sunflower-producing state. Last year the state harvested 1.23 billion pounds of sunflowers.

Sunflower seeds have lots of calcium and 11 other important minerals. They do have 50 percent fat, but it is mostly polyunsaturated linoleic acid, which helps the body metabolize fats properly.

They are also rich in vitamins, proteins and minerals. They contain about 24 to 27 percent protein, only slightly less than an equal weight of ground beef. Furthermore, sunflower seeds contain about twice the iron and potassium and about 4 times the phosphorus of beef.

Toasting the seeds enhances their flavor. Lightly brown them in a skillet over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, or on a cookie sheet in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.

Van Gogh’s Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers is one of the top 20 most expensive paintings in the world coming in at a mere $74.5 million.

Finally, don’t miss the Sunflower Festival on June 18. This family-oriented event is located under the trees in Gilliam, Louisiana. It features local crafts, entertainment, art displays and food. However, the finest attraction for many is the drive on Highway 3049 as one passes fields of sunflowers, the beautiful countryside and all of the quaint Louisiana towns.



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