Sunflowers are unquestionably attention grabbers. These hardy plants have long been famous for their large yellow blooms with dark centers. The largest varieties can soar to the height of a second story window. Sunflowers are more than just a decorative plant. For millennia, people have cultivated sunflowers because their seeds are a valuable source of nutritious food and edible oil.

sunflowers on wooden board
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Sunflower Facts

Sunflowers in Brief

Sunflowers are cultivated for their ornamental value and because the seeds are a valuable food source. The botanical name for the sunflower is Helianthus and it's native to the western hemisphere. Most varieties are bright yellow with a dark, almost black center. However, there are also varieties that are orange, red, burgundy and striped. The flowers are actually made up of thousands of tiny florets that eventually mature into edible seeds. The leaves are rough in texture and have uneven or jagged edges. These plants are cultivated worldwide, including in Europe, Britain and Russia. There are 38 varieties that are native to North America, many of which grow to be up to 5 feet tall. Giant sunflowers can reach a height of 10 or even 15 feet.

Sunflowers in History

Archeological evidence indicates that Native Americans cultivated sunflowers 5,000 years ago and perhaps longer. They ground the seeds into flour that they used to bake bread and cakes. Native Americans also pressed the seeds to extract oil and used the stems as a building material. The Spanish introduced the sunflower to Europe around 1500. By the 1700s, the English were growing sunflowers commercially for the oil. Sunflowers became especially popular in Russia. As a result, Russian immigrants helped popularize the plants in the United States during the 19th century. Sunflower oil remains popular as a healthy alternative to cooking oils derived from animal fat.

The Healthy Sunflower

Sunflower seeds are highly nutritious. One ounce provides 170 calories. The seeds are rich in choline, which is essential for the body to make acetylcholine, a substance important to neurological function and fetal brain development. Sunflower seeds are good sources of protein, fiber, zinc, phosphorus and vitamins B6 and E. You can eat the seeds like nuts or add them to salads, cereals and other foods. Sunflower seed flour is also used for baking. The oil is a healthy option as an alternative to animal fats. You can even switch from peanut butter to sunflower seed butter to avoid allergic reactions.

Cultivating Sunflowers

Although sunflowers are strong, hardy plants, they grow best in moist, fertile soil enriched with organic material. Adding mulch is advisable. Be careful not to overwater sunflowers. Excessive watering may loosen soil around the taproot and make the plant unstable. Provide two gallons of water, including rainfall, per week for young plants. The plants need a lot of sun and should be planted after danger of frost has passed. It's best to plant the seeds directly to promote taproot growth rather than transplanting seedlings. Space the seeds about 6 inches apart and thin to 18 inches once leaves begin to appear. As the plants mature, they generally need less water. Because the stems are strong, smaller varieties don't need support. However, tall or giant sunflowers may need to be tied to stakes for extra support.