We’ll tell you all about sunflowers so you can be a sunflower expert.
sunflowers (Helianthus annuus)
It is believed that sunflowers were found as early as 3000 BC. Before corn in the area that is now Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona and around 2300 BC BC were domesticated in the Mississippi Valley. The plant undoubtedly comes from North Central America and became large and bushy with many flowers per plant. There is evidence that the seeds were used to grind flour for bread or to be used in a meal mixed with pumpkin, corn, or beans. Various strains used the plants to make dyes for oil applied to skin and hair, and the stems were even used as a building material. Sunflowers have also been used as beanstalks, such as corn in the three-sister cultivation method.
The original sunflower was large, but had small flowers with relatively small seeds – these were ground as a grain crop.
Spanish explorers returned to Europe with seeds at the end of the 16th century and grew the sunflower as a decorative annual distribution. The English authorities granted a patent for extracting oil from the seeds in 1716, and in the late 18th century sunflowers were almost exclusively grown for this purpose. Peter the Great was a supporter of sunflower oil and promoted its spread east to Russia. The commercial processing of sunflower oil took place around 1830.
The Russian Orthodox Church banned the consumption of a number of oils during Lent, but sunflower oil was never on the list. As a result, Russian farmers planted more than 2 million acres of the plant in the mid-19th century. Russian breeders began to divide sunflowers into two categories: one that has a higher oil content and another that produces larger seeds for human consumption. V.S. Pustovoit is credited with developing a variety with a very high oil content. By the end of the century, seeds had returned to North America in the hands of Russian and Eastern European immigrants. Around 1880, seed companies began advertising Russian mammoth sunflowers. Commercial processing of sunflower oil in North America began in the mid-1920s. The cake that remained after pressing the seeds for oil became a useful feed for the cattle.
In 1930 the Canadian government launched its own breeding program, and in 1946 a small shredder was introduced. The demand for sunflower oil spread in the northern US states. In 1964, the Canadian government began licensing a Russian variety called Peredovik for its extremely high oil content and the first hybrids started appearing in the 1970s. By then, over 5 million acres of sunflower had been grown in the United States alone, and much of it was exported back to Europe because it was much cheaper to produce than olive oil and healthier than animal lard.
Today, of course, there are numerous varieties to choose from, including the really large varieties, smaller, compact varieties, pollen-less varieties for the flower market and heirlooms that go back to cultivation in Italy, China and elsewhere. A wide range of colors, sizes and seed types is now available. A number of varieties have also been bred to produce significantly more oil than Peredovik.
Sunflowers belong to the Asteraceae family, all of which form a compound head (capitulum) from masses of simple flowers (florets), each of which produces a seed when successfully pollinated. Sunflowers usually have between 1,000 and 1,400 florets and potential seeds per head. The capitulum is surrounded by petals, so that the entire structure looks like a single flower. This family is huge and includes daisies, chicory, dandelions and, oddly, lettuce.
All sunflowers are very attractive to bees and other pollinators.
Sunflowers got their name from a strange process called heliotropism. During the growth phase, the heads of almost all sunflowers face east at dawn and follow the sun all day long at dawn. A flexible piece of the stem (the Pulvinis) directly under the flower bud enables this strange movement. Another remarkable ability of the sunflower is its use in extracting toxic ingredients from the soil. The plants can not only absorb lead and arsenic, but were also used to produce the radioactive chemicals cesium, uranium and strontium after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. This is a long-term process known as phytoextraction, which is believed to be less harmful to the environment than other methods.
Towards the end of July, the city of Altona in Manitoba celebrates the Manitoba Sunflower Festival, an event that has been taking place for almost 50 years. Events include live music, Mennonite food and handicrafts, a quilt show, motorcycle stunts, a dog show, a petting zoo, baseball, farmers markets, and the crowning glory of Manitoba’s sunflower queen.
Russian mammoth is a good choice to eat – or share with the birds.
How to grow sunflowers
Difficulty: Easy. Choose small varieties for growing containers. The larger sunflowers have deep roots to anchor them in place and need to go straight to the garden bed.
Timed coordination: Sunflower seeds need heat to germinate, i.e. direct seeds from mid-April to mid-May. Seeds can be sown directly in June, but produce flowers much later in the season. Transplanted sunflowers must be staked out because their roots are limited by pots.
Sowing: Sow 1 cm deep and sow about twice as many seeds as you need. Thin this to 30 cm for small to medium-sized plants and 60 cm for large varieties.
Ground: Choose a location in full sun with average fertility and good drainage. Sunflowers are not very sensitive to the pH of the soil and can be grown anywhere from 5.7 to slightly more than 8.0.
Growing: Use organic all-purpose fertilizer about halfway through the summer. To aid in the proper development of the seeds you eat to feed birds, dissolve 5 ml (1 tsp) borax in 350 ml (1½ cups) of water and spread them over 5 m (15 inch) rows. This provides plants with boron, which is essential for the production of large, strong seeds. However, do not apply this solution too strongly, as too much boron can damage the plants.
Harvest: Depending on the time of planting, the sunflower seeds should be ready for harvest at the end of summer and into autumn. Let the seed heads dry on their stems. If necessary, place a brown bag over the flower head and fasten it at the bottom to keep out squirrels and birds. The most important thing is that when the plant dies, it has time to develop the seeds in its shells. Then cut off the heads, bring them inside and (after they have completely dried out) remove the seeds by rubbing and pressing against them.
Warehouse: Use the gray or white variety to prepare seeds for eating. Then rub the seeds off the large flower head and soak overnight in 4 l of water with 250 ml (1 cup) of salt. Drain, then dry in an oven at 250 ° F for 4-5 hours and then store in an airtight container. The species with black seeds are mainly used for pressing oil or bird feed.
Seed info: Under optimal conditions, at least 75% of the sunflower seeds should germinate. Properly stored (cool, dry and dark) these seeds should last up to 7 years.
Cultivation for seeds: Sunflower blossoms open over a period of 5 to 10 days and are pollinated by insects. In order to maintain the purity of the seeds, individual varieties should be isolated for 2 to 5 km, depending on the size of the crop and proximity to other producers.
Pests & diseases: Few insect pests cause problems, but watch out for damage to the lower stems by squirrels and other rodents. If damage occurs, spray the stems of all of your sunflowers with a solution of water, cayenne pepper, and a few drops of dish soap.