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Basic Facts about Sunflowers

Let us enlighten ourselves with some facts about sunflowers.  Sunflower is an annual plant.  This beautiful flower is product of the plant which comes from Asteraceae family.  Helianthus annuus is the scientific name of this plant, which comes from two Greek words helios, which means sun and anthos, which means flower.  This is a heliotropic plant.  Heliotropic plants are the plants which move along with the motion of the sun.  This movement of the flower along with sun is basically seen in the early stages and not in the later stages when the seeds have grown and the plant becomes heavy.

The flower can grow in size where the flower head can range anywhere around 12 inches in diameter.  The height of the plant can go anywhere up to 16 feet.  Normal height of the plant ranges from 2 feet to 8 feet.  However, there are smaller varieties also, which can be grown as per our need and available space.

Sunflower has a short growing season and that is why it is grown throughout the world.  The plant is a fast growing one which can mature in 80 days to 100 days.  The plant that is domestically grown normally has a single stalk with a large flower on top of it.  The wild variety has smaller flower with multiple branches. 

Uses of Sunflowers

There are basically two categories in which the sunflower crop is divided.  The crop is primarily cultivated for sunflower oil.  The sunflower seeds are surrounded by black and white striped shells also called hulls.  The shells of seeds that are black in color are used for extracting oil.  Basically sunflowers are used for producing vegetable oil for cooking purpose.  It is widely used for it being low in saturated fat and considered good for heart health.

The second most common use of sunflowers is the seeds of this plant which are edible.  The seeds have a stout but delicate texture.  They have flavor that is nutty but pleasant.  Usually they are roasted and salt added to it.  Some eat them even raw.  Sunflower seeds are rich in vitamin E and selenium.  These are antioxidants which protect the cells of the body from damage.  Thus they protect the body from many chronic illnesses.  The seeds are also rich in plant chemicals like flavonoids and phenolic acids.  Both are antioxidants and hence prevent body cells from damage.

Some sunflowers seeds get sprouted and dried.  They are available in some selected shops.  Also they can be bought online.  They are good snack.  Sunflower seeds are used as baked products or on top of yogurt or salads.  They are also available in market as shelled or whole.  In this form they should not be eaten as they are indigestible 

The seeds are eaten because they are healthy and high in nutrition value and are part of good and balanced diet.  The edible variety is available in many flavors.  Most of the edible seeds are sold salted and in their shells in market.  In smaller seeds only the kernel is sold after removing the shells.  The kernel variety is easier to eat.  For health conscious people certain varieties are also sold unsalted.  The packaging may range from plastic bags to glass jars. 

Where do sunflower seeds come from?

You may be curious to know from where do sunflower seeds come from.  You may also be curious to know do sunflower seeds come from sunflowers themselves.  You may also wonder how are sunflower seeds made or are they grown naturally.

Sunflower seeds basically are the fruits of the sunflower plant.  They come from the composite head of the flower called capitulum.  The head of the plant can sometimes be very huge ranging anywhere up to 12 inches or more in diameter.  The sunflower you love to see is not one but hundreds of tiny flowers.  These florets are clustered together and look like one big flower.  A single head of the sunflower can give anywhere up to 2000 seeds. 

Everyday sunlight of six hours at least is required for the plant to thrive.  During summer season sunflower blossom enormously.  Summers and fall are the best seasons for the plant to bloom properly.  The nature has given sunflower the wealth of variety of colors, shapes, and sizes which enhances the beauty of this flower.  The colors may range from yellow, golden yellow, ruby red, bronze, orange, burgundy, creamy white, crimson, lime green, and also white etc.  Interestingly they are pollenless and do not stain your hands or cloth. 

How do you harvest sunflower seeds?

In this section we will understand how do you harvest sunflower seeds.  Let us understand how to get seeds from sunflowers.  Check your sunflower seeds and monitor them regularly after you see them wilting.  Wilting in simpler words means when flowers bend and starts to die or become limp or flaccid.  The back of flower head is called calyx.  When the backs of the flower head are yellow and start becoming brownish it is the time for their harvest.  By this time the outer petals would have fallen down.  The seeds mature long before this.  Since the heads of the flower are moist they are allowed to dry before harvest.  At this time the seeds are flat and shrunken. 

Do not let the seeds to fully mature on the stalk.  If they mature, they will be easily eaten by birds and squirrels.  To protect them from birds and squirrels put a brown paper over the flower head to cover it.  In order to prevent the ripening seeds to fall out, tie it below with a string.  Avoid using plastic bag.  It will stop breathing of flower and result in developing mold.  Then it will take time for the plant to die.  Paper bag should be left in place till this happens.

Daily check the progress by removing the bag.  As soon as the flower head turns dark brown and flower looks to be dying seeds are ready to harvest.  By this time most petals will fall down.  Measuring 12-18 inches from lower part of bag cut the flower stalk.  Use a sharp knife or a pair of pruning shears for cutting.  If there any remaining leaves on the stalk remove them.  Thus we understand how are sunflower seeds harvested.

How to dry sunflower seeds before removing from the stem.

In this part, we will understand how to dry sunflower seeds.  Select a ventilated, warm, and dry room indoor or outdoor.  This could be a shed or barn.  Hang the stem with bag upside down.  Keep it in this position for 1-5 days until the flower head gets dried.  The sunflower bag should be checked daily and vigorously shaken.  Inside the bag, loose seeds will make a rattling noise.  If so, it is an indicator that the seeds are ready.  Otherwise, it means they are not dry enough and ready.  Now open the bag and feel if the flower head has completely dried.  In the flower head, lightly brush your fingers over some seeds.  The seeds will be ready for storage if falling down easily. 

When drying it, ensure there is ample circulation of air.  Stacking one over other should be avoided.  This will prevent them from losing moisture and even get rotten and decay.  How to dry sunflower seeds is not difficult process but quite simple but requires due attention.

How to extract seeds from the flower head

After accomplishing the task of how to get seeds from sunflowers let us understand how to extract seeds.  Using a knife or your hand, scrape off the dry parts of petals from the flower head.  This will look like a fluffy debris or greenish yellow buds covering the seeds. 

Now separate the seeds from the head of the flower.  Keep a suitable container or a bucket ready to collect the seeds.  Now, rub the seeds from the flower head with the help of your thumb.  Allow them to fall in a container below.  To make this simpler, the flower head can be broken into smaller pieces.  Also you can take two ripe parts of flower head and rub them together.  Do this over a container and thus collect the seeds. 

Also save some raw seeds for the purpose of planting ahead.  Keep them safely in a jar or a paper bag.  Store them in cool and dry place till the planting time comes.

Washing and drying the sunflower seeds for storage.

When the seeds have been removed, again wash them and dry them before storing and consuming them.  Make sure to take some important steps keeping in mind how you want to use the seeds.  They should be simply washed and dried if you are saving them for replanting or feeding the animals. 

Washing will help in cleaning the dirt, particles of flower, and other matter of plant.  This could have been mixed during the process of seed removal.  When they are cleaned and soaked, leave them to dry to be ready for storage.  If they are allowed to dry out completely, they can be kept longer for planting again. 

For drying purpose, take a thick towel.  Lay the towel on a flat surface and spread the seeds in a single layer.  Allow this process for several hours until the seeds are completely dry. 

Perennial sunflower seeds

Like annual sunflower perennial sunflower are also cheery and also very useful.  It requires planning to grow perennial sunflower, as they can grow 3-8 feet in best suited conditions.  They have rhizomatous roots, which can spread rapidly.  So they should be planted where they can spread out or where a perimeter can be mowed around them.  Most varieties grow in full sun in zones 3-9 and in late summer through fall.  They grow naturally in prairies that are sunny and comfortably on grasses.  They also grow along roadsides. 

Annual sunflower produce big and tasty seeds but perennial sunflowers do not.  Perennial sunflower seeds are smaller in size and not that tasty.  The small seeds are harvested in late October and November.  Native Americans used to eat them as snacks and also sprinkled them on salads etc.  The annual sunflower seeds are very rich in sunflower oil but perennial variety is not that rich. 

The most popular variety of perennial sunflower is Sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus) commonly known as Jerusalem artichokes.  They are known for their edible roots with very high nutritious value. 

Some interesting facts about sunflowers

Do you know which country is the largest producer of sunflower seeds!  It is Ukraine.  In the year 2021-2022, Ukraine production was around 17.5 million metric tons.  Russia is the second largest producer and United States is the 10th largest producer of sunflower seeds.  Russia produced around 15.5 million metric tons in 2021-2022.  European Union produced 10.4 million metric tons in 2021-2022. 

As per the data available from 2017, there were 72 countries producing sunflower seeds.  Total production globally was 56 million tons in 2019.  There is evidence to suggest that Native American started cultivating sunflowers long-long back.  It is believed that some Spanish explorers brought the sunflower seeds to Europe around 1580 and starting growing them as ornamental garden crops.

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