Herbs to Know: Sunflowers

These versatile seeds can be used for medicine, nutrition, or a tasty snack.

  • The plant is native to the United States, so its seeds can rightly be called an all-American snack.
  • By season’s end, the sunflower (Helianthus annuus) can stand 12 feet tall.

Sunflowers are so cheerful. They stand tall, and their bright yellow faces turn to follow the sun across the sky. This time of year they’re a familiar sight in North America, where they grow in gardens and fields and along roadsides. As the seedheads ripen in late summer, birds seek them out and have picnics on them, picking out the nutritious, oil-laden kernels.

The birds are right to value sunflower seeds as snack food—sunflowers carry health benefits that go beyond the smiles they bring to our faces when we see them. Research and nutritional analyses show that sunflower seeds are loaded with protein, they’re an energy food, and they’re a rich source of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.

These plants also have history on their side. For 3,000 years, many Native American tribes cultivated them as a staple of their diets. The ancient Aztecs worshiped them, traditional herbalists used them medicinally and, today, they’re a major food crop in the United States. Sunflowers are native to this continent, so they can rightly be called an all-American snack.

Seed appeal

The sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant in the daisy family. It has coarse, hairy leaves, and it looks rough as it rapidly grows in early summer. By the end of the season, some varieties can tower 10 to 12 feet high.

Atop this gawky stalk is the single brilliantly colored ray flower that delivers its precious cargo of seeds. That flower is a lesson in efficient packing, with up to 2,000 zebra-striped seeds crammed tightly together in concentric circles within the flower head. In its form and growth habits, the sunflower offers comedy, drama, and geometry in addition to its other attributes.

It’s simple to grow. If you have the space, try it and you may end up with your own harvest of seeds if you beat the birds to it. See the box on page 63 for growing instructions. If you’re not a gardener, sunflower seeds for eating are sold in every convenience store and grocery, right next to the potato chips and pretzels.

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