By Carolyn Hurst
As a child growing up in South Dakota, our home was surrounded by farm fields. I learned to mark the seasons as people who depend on agriculture have for thousands of years: spring = planting, summer = caring, fall = harvesting, winter = preparing.
For several years, the crops raised in the field immediately in front of our house alternated between corn and flax. And then, while I was away at college, the local farmer changed gears. When I came home that summer, the field was ablaze with sunflowers. That golden field is one of my favorite memories of South Dakota.
Today, fields like the one I remember from my childhood are a common sight in the Midwest, Texas, and California. The portable and highly desired seeds of the sunflower have taken this plant from being a native wildflower in the U.S. to a much sought after, internationally popular, cash crop. For hundreds of years, sunflowers were valued by Native Americans. They were an important, high-energy food source. Their seeds were ground into flour, which was used to make breads and as an ingredient in other dishes. Their seeds were cracked and eaten. Their hulls were brewed to make a drink similar to coffee. Dyes for paint were extracted from the hulls, stalks, and flower petals. Face paint was made by mixing sunflower pollen and petals together. Dried stalks were used as building materials.
In the 1500s, Spanish explorers carried sunflower seeds back to Europe, where their uses continued to be explored. By 1716, a patent for squeezing oil from sunflower seeds had been issued in England. Russian agronomists are credited with developing the first hybrid varieties of sunflowers. Seeds from these hybrids were, in turn, brought back to the United States by Russian and German immigrants. As the demand for sunflower oil grew and new hybrids were developed, this versatile crop was planted in more and more acres. This year, approximately 2 million acres of U.S. land will be dedicated to raising sunflowers!
While there are an estimated sixty-seven species of sunflowers, only two types are grown commercially in the United States. The first type is used to make oilseed. The second type is consumed as food.
Oilseed sunflowers have small, black seeds that are high in oil content. Sunflower oil can be heated to very high temperatures and has a very light taste, which makes it an ideal cooking oil. Sunflower oil is also a highly desired industrial product that is used for everything from lubricating machines to making biodiesel fuel.
Non-oilseed or confectionery sunflowers are the variety raised primarily for food. Their seeds are big and are usually black and white. These are the seeds most of us recognize, because they are the ones we eat roasted and slightly salted as a snack. Seeds from this variety of sunflower are also commonly hulled (removed from the shell) and used as an ingredient in breads and other foods.
Tips for Home Gardeners and Cooks
The National Sunflower Association offers a wealth of information about sunflowers,
including tips for gardeners, instructions on how to roast sunflower seeds, and recipes. Visit them at www.sunflowersnsa.com.
When to Harvest: “The heads will be ready to harvest when the back of the head has
turned brown. In northern areas, this might be after the first killing freeze. In warmer areas, the plant will dry down naturally. Simply snip the head off the plant and rub the seeds out by hand. If birds or other pests are attacking your sunflower heads, you can cut the heads and hang them in your garage like onions often are dried. But you need to ensure that the seeds are mature. Look for the back of the head to be a banana yellow to turning brown before you harvest the heads. Remove any other plant debris.” Source: www.sunflowersnsa.com.
Copyright 2010. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine®, Summer 2010. Used with permission.