Sunflowers make a good informal boundary or screen for a garden or yard. Plant the very tall ones behind and north of vegetables or other sun-loving plants so they do not shade growing areas. Young plants bend toward the east in the morning and the west in the afternoon, but contrary to popular belief, flower heads do not turn to face the sun as it moves across the sky.
Mid-sized multi-branching types look good in the middle of planted borders, in meadows, and mixed with shrubs. Use smaller varieties in massed plantings for colorful hedges, edging or even as container plants.
Keep in mind that sunflower seeds, leaves and stems emit substances that inhibit the growth of certain other plants, such as potatoes and pole beans. Where sunflower seeds are regularly used as bird feed; toxins from the seed hulls eventually kill the grass beneath the feeders. Harmless to animals or people, the toxins eventually biodegrade in the soil.
Sunflower seeds are a favorite food of many birds: evening grosbeaks, purple finches, blue jays, cardinals, sparrows, goldfinches, chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, and others. These birds are also great destroyers of many insect pests. To enlist the birds’ help in your fight against pest insects, provide sunflower seed, water and shelter for bird families.
Those sunflowers that bear pollen and make seeds attract lots of beneficial insects such as honeybees, ladybugs, and small wasps. Squirrels also favor sunflower seeds. They may attempt to climb the stalks to reach the flower heads when the seeds in their centers mature. Usually they break the stems at the top of the plants. Any seed heads that fall on the ground are fair game for many other small animals.
Cutting/Displaying Sunflowers Indoors
Cut the newly opening flowers with hand pruners early in the morning before they have a chance to dry out in the sun. Trim off any extra leaves from their stems and stick them in a bucket of water. Add some sugar to this water (1 teaspoon per gallon) to encourage the flowers to open completely. When you are ready to display the flowers, transfer them from the bucket to fresh water in a vase or other container.
The new pollenless types of sunflowers make great bouquets. ‘Sunrich Lemon’ or ‘Sunrich Orange’ bloom about 10 days before the others for the earliest cutting. ‘Valentine’ is also great for cutting.
Cut sunflowers can be preserved for dried flower arrangements by drying them in very fine, clean sand, Borax or silica gel. Position the flowers face down on a bed of the granules, then pour more over them, carefully working the particles around the petals and leaves until the flower is completely covered.
Sand and Borax are not actually desiccants. They just support the flowers in an open air environment until the moisture evaporates naturally. This may be from 3 to 5 weeks depending on the warmth and humidity of the air. Silica gel dries the flowers by absorbing their moisture, so their containers must be lightly covered. Leave the flowers in the chemical for about a week or until they are completely dried. Expect to uncover the flower once or twice to check it and then recover it if it is not completely dry.
Harvesting and Storing Sunflower Seeds
In the early fall, check flower heads for signs of maturity. Large ones will have drooped to face downward, their back sides having turned from green to yellow-brown. A close look will reveal that the tiny petals that once covered the developing seeds have dried and fall out easily, exposing the tightly packed mature seeds.
To harvest the seeds ahead of the birds, cut the seed heads with a foot or so of stem attached and hang them in a warm, dry place that is well-ventilated and protected from rodents and bugs. Keep them out of humidity to prevent spoilage from molds. Let the harvested seed heads cure for several weeks. When the seeds are thoroughly dried, rub them to dislodge them from the seed heads.
Sunflower seeds are famous for their high nutritional value. They are rich in vitamins, proteins, and minerals, as well as linoleic acid, which help the body metabolize fats properly. They contain about 24 to 27% protein--only slightly less than an equal weight of ground beef. Furthermore, sunflower seeds contain about twice the iron and potassium and about 4 times the phosphorus of beef. Raw sunflower seeds also contain vitamins B and E, and a dash of vitamin A. Sprouted, they also contain vitamin C.
Use the seeds for snacks, alone or mixed with raisins, dried fruit chips, nuts or other “trail food” goodies. Add hulled sunflower seeds to salads, and use them in fruit or vegetable recipes. Substitute them for nuts in baking. To toast the seeds to enhance their flavor lightly brown them on a skillet over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, or on a cookie sheet in the oven at 350° F for about 10 minutes.