By Carolyn Bahm
Few blossoms can beat the sunflower for sky-high gardening satisfaction. According to the National Garden Bureau, it’s one of the easiest garden flowers to grow.
The benefit is sun-bright blossoms and tasty seeds for the family and any back yard bird visitors.
Marvin Trimm of the Palmetto community in Lee County believes that growing sunflowers is as easy as falling off a log. His daughter ordered a new branching variety of sunflower from a catalog about four years ago, and he got a few. Today the plants still come up “volunteer” (from last year’s mature seeds left on the ground). He digs them up each spring and plants them in a long row circling the garden. The plants produce about 30 tiny seeds per blossom, but that’s not why Trimm delights in the sunflowers.
He and his wife enjoy sitting on the deck, looking at the 6-foot-tall plants topped by lofty blossoms. “Some make a big stalk, and they’ll have as many as 15 to 20 blooms on them.”
Tupelo florist Jody Bishop also grows his own sunflowers, but not for business use. He belongs to a hunting club out from Clarksdale on the Mississippi River. Members hunt in the nearby woods and provide nearby supplemental food crops for deer, turkey, doves and other animals. Last year, one rotating crop was 400 acres of sunflowers.
“They’re very hardy, and you don’t have to spray the weeds out because they grow up taller than most of the Johnson grass and all that,” Bishop said.
During the summer, animals will eat the sunflower stalks and the heads with the nutritious seed pods. “The deer, especially with the waist- to shoulder-high sunflowers, will push a stalk over and take a big bite out of the head like it’s a Moon Pie.”
In autumn, the final sunflower plants will tumble to the ground, and turkey, doves, redbirds and other wildlife will eat the spilled seeds. Bishop emphasized that his hunting club members do not hunt the animals on the feeding grounds, but they do enjoy watching the wildlife feasting in the late afternoons on the crop smorgasbord.
At his floral shop, Jody’s Flowers, Bishop also buys fresh sunflowers and dried sunflower heads for arrangements. The dried flower head has a hole in the middle where the dried stem was removed, and this makes the flower heads convert easily into a bird feeder: Several can be strung up back-to-back and hung in a tree or near a window. “The birds can actually come and eat the seeds off the head,” Bishop said.
1996 fills a tall order
The National Garden Bureau named 1996 as the Year of the Sunflower. The leggy blossoms were honored just 10 years ago, but the sunflower family has seen enough changes and additions in a decade to warrant a second look.
Since the Year of the Sunflower back in 1986, three new types have been introduced into the North American market. The first has a new plant habit: It has a sturdy central stem that produces multiple branches with many flowers. The result is a showy garden plant that is excellent for cutting. Staking is not required. The second is a dwarf sunflower reaching only 1 to 2 feet tall. The third is the pollenless type bred for cut flowers.
Pollenless types are important because sunflowers produce plenty of messy pollen that stains flower petals, cloth, paper and just about anything the pollen contacts (including the linen tablecloth under your flower arrangement). The pollenless types also have a longer shelf life. Currently there are six pollenless varieties on the North American market.
The height of the common sunflower ranges from 3 to 12 feet, with some reaching to 18 feet. These native American plants can yield more than just floral decorations, birdseed and people food: Innovators have fashioned linen, perfume, crafts, picture frames and even hat decorations from parts of the sunflower.
Sunflowers come in two types: Decorative and those grown for edible seeds. The decorative varieties do produce seeds if flowers are left on the plant, but they are small and probably best left for wildlife.
Decorative sunflowers vary widely in color and size: Gardeners can choose a dwarf, fully-double golden chrysanthemum type or a 4-foot pure yellow or white sunflower with shades of primrose. Hues of yellow, gold, bronze, mahogany red and bicolor blooms are part of the palette.
Mammoth, introduced in the 1880s and still one of the tallest sunflowers, is the most widely grown variety for edible seeds. Mammoth is most often used to produce prize-winning seed heads.
Stem-winder of a history
Sunflower remains have been found in North American archaeological sites as early as 3,000 B.C., according to the National Garden Bureau. The wild plant probably originated in the Western plains of North America, but ancestors of the cultivated sunflower have been traced to the Southwest or the Missouri-Mississippi River valley areas. Ozark Bluff dwellers may have been the first sunflower breeders.
American Indians lightly roasted the seeds and used them in breads or with other vegetables. Spanish explorers collected sunflowers among the New World’s flora, introducing the ornamental sunflower to Europe. By 1616, the sunflower was common in England’s gardens.
In 1699 one author wrote of making macaroons out of a flour made from ground seeds, but he compared the flavor to turpentine. However, Charles Bryant wrote in 1783, “The seeds have aa agreeable flavor as almonds and are excellent food for domestic poultry.” He also noted the high content of oil stored in the seeds and how easy it is to extract.
The success story really blossomed in Russia. The Holy Orthodox Church of Russia forbade the use of many foods during Lent and Advent, including many which were rich in oil. The Russians eagerly accepted the sunflower, recognizing it as a source of oil that could be eaten without breaking the laws of the church. Russians quickly zoomed to the top of the class in sunflower seed production.
In the past 50 years, Russians have bred sunflowers for high oil and improved resistance. In 1966, an open pollinated variety was introduced in the U.S., starting the first sustained U.S. commercial production of the oil seed type of sunflower.