The “broad-faced sunflower” is “plain, honest, and upright,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher. Sunflowers are native American plants that were cultivated as a food source as far back as 2,300 years ago, even before corn, beans, and squash.
They were a big hit back in Europe when introduced there by New World explorers in the 1500s. One giant sunflower grown in Padua was said to have reached 40 feet in height. Today the tallest sunflowers, “Mammoth Russians,” grow up to 12 feet. Russian Czar Peter the Great (nearly 7 feet tall himself) discovered sunflowers growing in Holland and started one of the world’s first large cultivation programs. The Russian sunflowers were reintroduced to America in the 1880s and are still available in today’s seed catalogs.
Sunflower growers now have some 2,000 varieties to choose from, from the tallest to the newer dwarf varieties such as Sunspot and Teddy Bear that grow approximately 12 to 18 inches.
At this time of year, sunflowers are at their most glorious, crowning gardens with colors ranging from pale yellow to red, bronze, burgundy, chestnut, mahogany, and white. Actually, Italian white is an extremely pale yellow, shading to nearly white, and looks like a large daisy.
Cutting varieties of sunflower such as Italian White, Parasol Mix, and Indian Blanket will branch after cutting, producing many smaller flowers. Many gardeners prefer pollenless varieties such as Prado Red and Velvet Queen, which don’t stain fingers when touched.
Sunflowers are actually composites of 1,000 to 4,000 tiny flowers. The showy flowers around the edge are the male, or “ray,” flowers. The female “disk” flowers are in the middle and produce the seeds. The seeds can be harvested once the flowers have turned brown. Late in the season, you can cut the flower heads off at the stem and hang the flowers upside down in an airy location to allow them to dry. Rub two flower heads together, and allow the seeds to drop onto a sheet or into a container. A small patch of giant sunflowers will produce a lot of seed for your birdfeeder this fall and winter.
For a delicious sunflower seed snack, cover the unshelled seeds with salted water, using ¼ cup salt for two quarts water. Simmer for two hours. Dry the on paper towels. Or soak the seeds overnight in saltwater. Spread the dry seeds on a baking sheet and roast in a 300 F oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Stir the seeds occasionally, and taste to determine if they are completely roasted. Store the seeds in an air-tight container. For immediate eating, you can mix the freshly roasted seeds with melted butter or olive oil and favorite seasonings, onion or garlic salt, or Cajun or barbecue powder.