The state flower of Kansas, Wild Annual Sunflower, is widely distributed across North America. This sunflower is actually native to all 48 United States! One of the tallest growing helianthus members, up to 12 ft, this annual prefers to grow in well drained, disturbed soils with full sun exposure. The bright yellow and brown flowers are in bloom from July - September, providing excellent forage for many pollinating insects. The Sunflower is an erect, coarse, tap-rooted annual with rough-hairy stems. The leaves are mostly alternate, egg-shaped to triangular, and entire or toothed. The flower heads are 3 to 6 in. wide and at the ends of branches. The seeds are a food staple for many wildlife species and song birds through the winter months. Historically, this plant was utilized by Native American tribes for many different medicinal purposes. This plant makes and excellent border species in butterfly gardens or any other native garden plantings.
Wild Sunflower will germinate in approximately 7-25 days and can grow from 6 to 12 feet tall. The plant will bloom yellow between July and September. There are approximately 47,000 seeds per pound. The Wild Sunflower prefers moist clay-like soils, but it is tolerant of a wide range of soils including limestone-based, sandy, sandy loam, medium loam, clay loam and clay. The Sunflower is a native domesticated crop. During the last 3,000 years, Native Americans increased the seed size approximately 1,000%. They gradually changed the genetic composition of the plant by repeatedly selecting the largest seeds.
Originally cultivated by North Americans, it has a long and interesting history as a food plant. Sunflower Seeds were and still are eaten raw, roasted, cooked, dried, and ground, and used as a source of oil. Flower buds were boiled. The roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute. The Mescalero and Chiricahua Apache made extensive use of wild Sunflowers. The Hidatsa used wild verse-cultivated Sunflowers in the production of cooking oil because the seeds of their smaller flower heads produced superior oil. In the Northeast, Sunflowers are part of the Onandaga (Iroquois) creation myth. In the Southwest, the Hopi believe that when the Sunflowers are numerous, it is a sign that there will be an abundant harvest. In the prairies, the Teton Dakota had a saying “when the Sunflowers were tall and in full bloom, the buffaloes were fat and the meat good.” Helianthus seeds were eaten by many California natives, and often ground up and mixed with other seeds in pinole. The Sunflower was used for food in Mexico and had reputed medicinal value in soothing chest pains. Francisco Hernandez, an early Spanish explorer, ascribed aphrodisiac powers to the sunflower.
Charles H. Lange, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, wrote that “among the Cochiti, a reliable ‘home remedy’ for cuts and other wounds is the juice of freshly crushed sunflower stems. The juice is smeared liberally over the wounds, bandaged, and invariably results in a speedy recovery, with never a case of infection.”
Purple and black dyes extracted from wild sunflowers were used to dye basketry materials. A yellow dye was also derived from the ray flowers. The Hopi Indians grew a Sunflower variety with deep purple achenes, and obtained a purple dye by soaking them in water. The dye was used to color basketry or to decorate their bodies.
The Teton Dakotas boiled flower heads from which the involucral bracts had been removed as a remedy for pulmonary troubles. Pawnee women who became pregnant while still nursing a child took a sunflower seed medicine to prevent sickness in the child. In the southwest, Zuni medicine men cured rattlesnake bites by chewing the fresh or dried root, then sucking the snake bite wound. The Wild Sunflower was worn in the hair of the Hopi Indians of Arizona during various ceremonies, and carved wooden Sunflower disks found at a prehistoric site in Arizona almost certainly were employed in ceremonial rituals.
Early American colonists did not cultivate Sunflowers. The Sunflower probably went from Mexico to Spain, and from there to other parts of Europe. The Russians developed the Mammoth Russian or Russian Giant Sunflower, and offered these varieties as seeds, which in 1893 were reintroduced to the United States. Sunflowers are used as a source of vegetable oil. The seeds are used for snacks and for bird food.
Medicinal uses for the sunflower utilized by the Europeans include use as a remedy for pulmonary infections, a preparation of the seeds has been widely used for cold and coughs, in the Caucasus the seeds have served as a substitute for quinine in the treatment of malaria, and Sunflower seeds are used as a diuretic and expectorant. Sunflower Pith has been used by the Portuguese in making moxa, which was used in the cauterization of wounds and infections. An infusion from the flowers has been used to kill flies.
Sunflowers are cultivated as ornamentals or garden plants, where the blooms are cherished for their beauty, and the seeds can be eaten by both humans and wildlife. Game birds, songbirds, and rodents eat the large, nutritious seeds of Sunflowers. These attractive weedy plants are of outstanding value to wildlife in the prairies and other parts of the United States. Birds eating the seeds include snipes, doves, grouse, ring-necked pheasants, quail, turkey, bobolinks, lazuli buntings, black-capped chickadees, cowbirds, crossbills, crows, finches, larks, longspurs and meadowlarks. Small mammals who relish the seeds include the least chipmunk, eastern pocket gopher, ground squirrels, lemmings, meadow mice and prairie dogs. Antelope, deer, elk and moose browse on the plants.
Sunflower stalks have been used as fuel, fodder for livestock, food for poultry, and ensilage. In Russia, after the dried flower stalks have been used for fuel, the ashes are returned to the soil. The seed hulls could be used for “litter” for poultry or returned to the soil or composted. A few years ago, it was found that the hulls could be used in fuels. Today the hulls are used in the Russia in manufacturing ethyl alcohol and furfural, in lining plywood, and in growing yeast. The stems have been used as a source of commercial fiber. The Chinese have used this fiber for the manufacturing of fabrics. Other countries are experimenting with the use of fiber in paper.
The Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is a common and widespread roadside weed. It is common in open sites in many different habitats throughout North America, southern Canada, and Mexico at elevations below 1900 m. Helianthus annuus is highly variable as a species, and hybridizes with several other species. The heads and plants are very large in cultivated forms.
Sunflowers need full sun. Irrigation is required until they become established.
When the soil has warmed up to at least 55ºF in the Spring, sow hardy Sunflower seeds where they are to flower. Seeds can also be sown in pots or seed trays and either planted out in their final positions in late fall or overwintered in a cold frame to be planted out in Spring. This technique is particularly useful in gardens with clay soil that is slow to warm up in spring.
There are two main methods of sowing outdoors: broadcast and with drills. For both, prepare the seedbed first. Dig over the soil to one spade’s depth, then rake over and firm. For broadcast sowing, sprinkle seeds thinly and evenly on the surface of the prepared seedbed and rake them in lightly. Label seedbeds, then water the area gently but thoroughly with a fine spray. For sowing with drills: Using either a trowel tip or the corner of a hoe, mark out shallow drill holes 3 to 6 in. (8-15 cm) apart, depending on the ultimate size of the plant. Sow seeds thinly and evenly by sprinkling or placing them along each drill at the appropriate depth. Carefully cover with soil and firm. Label each row and water gently but thoroughly with a fine spray.
To prevent overcrowding, the seedlings usually need to be thinned. To minimize disturbance to a seedling being retained, press the soil around it after thinning the adjacent seedlings. Water the newly establishing seedlings fairly frequently until the roots have developed. Support is required for the sunflower stems. Stakes help support the stem and protect the seedlings from rodent or bird damage. Birds and small mammals love both the sunflower seeds and the tender young seedlings. A scarecrow or netting may be necessary to protect the plants from herbivores.