Everyone identifies with the sunflower. It’s ubiquitous in its representation of gardening everywhere, yet I don’t see people growing sunflowers like they would say tomatoes or peppers. I think we need a revival of this multi-functional plant in every garden.
The sunflower is native to North America. It is thought to have originated in Mexico around 2500 B.C. The Europeans brought sunflower seeds back to Europe in the 1600’s where sunflower oil began to be used widely in cooking. The Aztecs and Incas used the sunflower as a symbol for their sun god.
Sunflowers have an upright growth habit, and can grow as high as 20 feet, but most varieties grow to be about 8-10 feet tall. Like corn, they are a greedy feeder of nitrogen, so make sure they have fertile soil and a full sun site.
Sunflowers (15 feet tall)
There are so many uses for sunflowers, so forgive me if I miss some of them. The most famous use is for the sunflower seeds, which are a great edible, and can be turned into sunflower oil. The petals can be used to feed cattle, and the stems can be used to produce paper. They can also be used to remediate toxic soil, and even help clean up nuclear disasters. I personally use them for the seeds, but also they make a great substitute for corn in a three sister’s garden. I like that they attract the pollinators, and sunflowers just look great out in the garden.
If you are growing the typical sunflower, it will be an annual. However there are many different varieties of sunflowers. I have even seen sunflowers with red petals. You can also grow perennial sunflowers, or Maximilian Sunflowers. These will come back year after year. These sunflowers tend to be shorter than the annuals and they will produce many small flower heads as opposed to one very large one. I am a big fan of Maximilian Sunflowers for wildflower meadows.
Maximilian Sunflower (Just starting to bloom)
Sunchokes are another species of sunflower that grow an edible tuber. Be careful with this variety as it can be very invasive. It’s great if you want it to take up a large area, but I would not plant sunchokes in a zone 1 garden. I made that mistake, and it took me awhile to finally get rid of them. If I had let them go, they would have taken my entire garden. Having said that, sunchokes make great pig food, and they are no maintenance.
~ Phil Williams
Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com. His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.