How to Grow Sunflowers (Helianthus Annuus)
Sunflower Origin and History
Sunflowers are an ancient crop originating from North America. Some scholars believe that cultivation took place some 3,000 BC by Native American tribes, who are considered the first people to use genetics and cross-breeding to get specific traits they were looking for. Historians also speculate that Sunflowers were actually cultivated before corn.
Sunflower seeds were an important food crop to the Native Americans; they would grind the seeds into meal for making bread or eaten as a porridge, squeezed for the oil, which they would use on their hair and skin, or use the hulls of the seed to create dye for clothing and war paint.
When the Spaniards arrived in the 1500's, they took these plants and seeds back to Europe, where it was adopted and used primarily for the oil. It was the Russians who were responsible for furthering the cross-breeding and hybridization into the types of Sunflowers we see today, both ornamental and food crop varieties.
By the 1800's these new varieties made their way back to America. Sunflower seeds in farm applications are used to produce feed for livestock and for producing oil.
The rest, they say, is History!
Types of Sunflowers
There are two different types of Sunflowers; Single-Headed and Branching. Single-headed are usually larger varieties and produce an edible seed head. They are the result of cultivation and breeding over the centuries to produce a large seed head for food and oil.
The branching varieties tend to be on the shorter side, but they can have up to 20 flowers per stalk. The branching types are more closely related to the wild types we see today in fields, on roadsides and in native prairies.
There are over 43 types of popular Sunflower varieties on the market today that have the Royal Horticulture Society's Award of Merit. Height ranges for most types are between 3 feet to 12 feet depending on the variety and they come in a large array of colors!
Planting and Care
Sunflowers are one of the easiest flowers you can grow from seed. Plant the seeds when the risk of a hard frost has passed ( in my area, Zone 5, this is usually around Mother's Day), in moist, well-drained soil. They prefer full sun in order to bloom successfully. Plant the seeds 1 inch deep and 1.5 inches apart from each other. With adequate sun and moisture, they are pretty fast growers. You should see seedlings emerge in about a week to week and a half.
Have you ever grown Sunflowers?
Sunflowers are mostly problem-free in my experience, but they can be host to a few problems. The most common are powdery mildew (which can be fixed with proper watering techniques and planting distance) and Nematodes. Inspect your plants regularly to prevent or deal with problems early for better success of a healthy growing season.
Did You Know?
- Sunflowers are the Kansas State Flower. This is because Kansas has so many of them growing wild throughout the State, that they are considered invasive.
- There is a popular myth that Sunflowers follow the track of the sun. This was partially debunked. While the sunflower buds do seem to follow the track of the sun, the fully-opened flowers face due East. No one knows why this is!
- Sunflowers were a popular subject matter for the old masters i.e. Van Gogh and Picasso.
Bird Species That Enjoy Sunflower Seeds
If you like bird watching, you can entice several species to your feeder by providing Sunflower seed. You can also plant a few plants and allow them to go to seed in late summer/early fall.
Some of the common species attracted by Sunflowers are:
- American Goldfinch
- Blue Jay
- Common Finch
- Mourning Dove
- Red-Bellied Woodpecker
An Interesting Footnote About Sunflowers
Typically, when you are growing Pole Beans and Squash, you plant Corn. The Corn supports the Beans and the Squash shades the roots of the Corn to keep moisture in.
This Native American growing technique is called "The Three Sisters". What is a common thing to do these days, is to include Sunflowers as the "4th" sister. They have similar requirements as Corn (although I feel Corn needs way more water than Sunflowers do) and provide excellent structural support to the Pole Beans.
If you are used to using Corn in your three sisters garden, consider swapping them out and using Sunflowers instead!
Because Sunflowers are so easy to grow, they are a good choice when teaching Children in the garden. You can also grow a very large variety (one that gets up to 12 feet tall) and use as a fort or hiding place for the children to play in once the Sunflowers have reached their full height.
When they have gone to seed, you can then show the children how to collect the seeds and prepare them as a healthy snack!
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© 2014 Lisa Roppolo