Margaret Lauterbach

Sunflowers always produce, be it good cheer and color, or seeds for snacks

A wild sunflower grows in the Boise Foothills last August.
A wild sunflower grows in the Boise Foothills last August.

Sunflowers are common and simple, but they’re immeasurably cheerful tokens of our summer outdoors. If you can beat the squirrels and birds to the seeds, they also provide delicious snacks.

Their botanic name is Helianthus annuus, plants native to the Americas. Its tolerance for a wide range of soils was evident in Kansas, growing in dry to moist area over the entire state, and led it to be designated the state flower. Butterflies and bees enjoy the nectar and spread their pollen, and birds and small mammals consume the seeds in winter. Most mature sunflowers do not follow the sun, but in maturity, they face eastward.

One huge specimen is the perennial sunflower, H. maximilliani, which produces edible tubers eaten by some native tribes. It grows to 10 feet, has narrow footlong leaves, and is hardy to zone 4, according to seed vendor J.L. Hudson. Some folks say the roots exude a toxic substance that inhibits growth of other plants, but a botanist friend said the allelopathic substance is chlorogenic acid in sunflower husks. As long as we have a bird feeder in one permanent place, we’ll have a bare spot beneath, where the sunflower husks lie.

Sunflower seeds were taken to Europe in the 16th century, where the seeds and oil were promptly valued and made use of in European kitchens. Russians were foremost in their development of sunflower oil for cooking, and their breeding efforts are responsible for at least some of the important changes in this species. That’s one of the reasons we have “Russian mammoth sunflowers,” growing to 10 feet in height, some seed heads over 18 inches in diameter.

Wild sunflowers have many branches, with rather small blossoms on them, but the domestic sunflowers we grow usually have only one flower per stalk. The mammoth sunflower heads are those often used to provide snacks or sunflower meats for other culinary purposes. Those heads are usually so heavy with seed they hang, facing the ground. They are ready for harvest when the back of the head turns yellow, but if you cut heads and intend to store them for a brief time at least, make sure they’re in a rodent-proof location.

To dry and remove the seeds, you can cut the stalk several inches below the head, and once it’s dry, you can harvest the seeds. Note that mice and squirrels will do anything to get at those seeds, so beware. Squirrels apparently ate (no residue in the vicinity) a squirrel-sized hole in the plastic lid of a trash barrel in which I’d stored sunflower seeds. Yes, they ate all of the seeds as well.

Once the heads are dry, wear heavy gloves and move seeds back and forth over a container, sheet or a tarp until the seeds pop loose. Don’t discard that stalk, for it makes a great “pusher” to move small branches and spent plants through a mulcher-grinder without damaging those blades.

You can roast seeds in a wok or in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes. If you prefer your sunflower seeds salty, prepare a brine with enough dissolved salt that your finger tastes salty after dipping it in that brine. Soak seeds in the brine for five or six hours, and then spread them out to dry before roasting them.

Why do we deadhead our spent flowers? The usual sequence is flower to seed. Going to seed takes a lot out of a plant, progressing to reproduce itself. Often we don’t want the plant to produce and drop seed because more of that plant would upset garden design, it may have been cross-pollinated, or the plant is a hybrid, and seed may not produce anything like the parent plant. If we remove the flower before it sets seed, it will bloom again and again, as long as we remove those flowers. We want our rose shrubs to set hips, for those are cases for seeds. Few of us use those seeds to grow roses, but the hips are also a way of shutting down the plant in preparation for winter dormancy.

Some plants produce seeds we do desire. We use dill, fennel and cilantro (coriander) seeds as food flavor enhancers. We may want to avoid buying seeds next year for summer savory, basils, echinacea or sunflowers, for instance.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.