Botanical name: Helianthus annuus


Sunflowers epitomize summer, sunshine and happiness. There’s also a reason why they’re called sunflowers: their great round flower heads follow the sun. Wise, then, to give consideration as to where you plant your flowers lest you find yourself looking at the back of their heads for most of the day. Native to North America, sunflowers have sturdy stems that can shoot up to 10 feet or more. The seeds, which are edible are a favourite with birds.

Sunflower history: sunflowers were commonly grown by the American Indian tribes of North America as early as 3000BC. They used them as flour for bread, for making oil and as a snack. The plant was also used for the production of purple dye, body painting and other decorations. Parts of the plant were used medicinally ranging from snakebite to other body ointments. The oil of the seed was used on the skin and hair. The dried stalk was used as a building material. The plant and the seeds were widely used in ceremonies.

Growers tips

  • How: Sunflowers are usually grown direct from seed in the garden because they don’t like to have their roots disturbed. Plant seeds 1-3 inches deep and 6-12 inches apart. Cover them with row covers until the plants are a foot or two high. Watering regularly will help them flower. They will stop blooming during periods of drought.

Where: Choose a well-drained soil with a good amount of organic matter as they are extremely fast growers. For the best flowering and the sturdiest stems, plant your sunflowers in full sun. Their flower heads will turn and follow the sun all day, so a full sun exposure will help them grow tall. Be careful when growing the taller varieties of sunflowers as they can easily shade other plants. Tall sunflowers work best as a screen or in the back of a border. They’re also great for growing vines on.

  • Maintenance: sunflowers tend to get top heavy when they bloom and often benefit from the support of stakes. If they are planted very close together, they may support themselves, but usually a heavy rain or strong wind will cause them to lean and they won’t straighten up on their own. Planting sunflowers along a fence is the easiest way to stake them. Bamboo stakes are also strong enough to keep the upright. Use care when inserting the stakes, so you don’t damage the sunflower roots.

Harvesting: you will know when the flowers are mature because their heads will turn downwards and the florets in the center disk will shrivel. To harvest, cut the whole flower head with about 1 ft. of stem attached and hang in a warm, dry, ventilated spot, away from insects and rodents. Cover the seed heads with cheesecloth or a paper bag, to catch loose seeds. Poke some small holes in the paper bag for ventilation. When the seed is completely dried and ready for use, it can be easily rubbed off the flower head and collected.

Article by Jane Barsby