Wild Sunflower Identification & Uses

Common Sunflower

I cannot think of a flower more beloved than Sunflowers.  There is the obvious beauty of the flower, but sunflowers have been cultivated for thousands of years by Native Americans for its varied uses.  Over time the Native Americans increased the size of the seeds, through plant selection, up to 1,000%!  The seeds, petals, and in some varieties, the roots are edible.  It also holds several healing applications and improves the quality of soil over time.  Read on and learn how to identify, plant, harvest, and use wild sunflowers.

Identification

There are a few species of wild sunflowers, however the one featured above and in this post is the common sunflower.  It is found throughout the United States.  Sunflowers as a genus are native to North and South America, later being introduced to Canada and various other countries throughout the world.  The flower received its name because the blooms and leaves follow the path of the sun each day, facing east in the morning and west in the evening.

There are around 60 species of sunflower in North and South America.  Some of the wild varieties are Prairie Sunflower (this sunflower has lance-shaped leaves), Desert Sunflower, Maximilian’s Sunflower, Giant Sunflower, Woodland Sunflower, and Jerusalem Artichoke.  Jerusalem Artichokes are known for their tasty, edible roots, which can be purchased in health food stores these days.

cultivated sunflowers

cultivated sunflowers

Cultivated varieties are bred for larger blooms and seeds, as well as different colors.

Sunflowers hybridize on their own very easily.  If you are having trouble identifying the exact species it could be because you are looking at a hybrid.  Common sunflowers and prairie sunflowers mix quite often.

Bloom

Several flower heads, each 3-5″ wide.
Bright yellow rays surround a maroon/brown-purple central disk of flowers.
Disk flowers go to seed in the fall.

sunflower close-up

Stem

Upright, branched or unbranched, and coarsely hairy.

upright sunflower stem

Leaves

Mostly alternating, heart or spade shaped leaves.  (Other varieties may have different shaped leaves.)
Coarse texture with toothed edges.
Lower leaves are ovate, and upper leaves are smaller and narrower.

coarse sunflower leaf

Height

Sunflowers can range from 2 – 13 feet high

Season

Summer/Fall
June/July through September/October

Habitat

Wild sunflowers grow in well-drained soil and full sun.
Often seen roadside and on field edges
Disturbed sites
Prairies, Open Plains, & Foothills

Often found growing with cocklebur, gaura, golden crownbeard, and rocky mountain beeplant in the wild.

Farmed sunflowers, and sometimes even wild sunflowers, can be seen in huge field crops.  Although traditionally sunflowers were grown around edges of garden beds.

cultivated sunflowers

By Bruce Fritz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunflowers As Food

Seeds can be made into a roasted snack, coffee substitute, cakes, soup, dumplings, flour, butter, and cooking oil.

The sprouts are delicious added to salads and sandwiches.

The flowers can be made into a tea.


If you are interested in making some traditional Native American recipes with sunflower seeds, I recommend purchasing Spirit of the Harvest.  Recipes are sorted by region and mostly simple to make.  I’ve tried a few that were very tasty, particularly the nut pancakes.

 

Sunflowers As Medicine

A flower tea was used for lung problems and malaria, while a tea made from the leaves was used to treat fevers.

Hopi used a poultice made from a leaf tea on snake and spider bites.

Navajo burned the stalk pith to make a powder, which was then applied to a wart for its removal.

Meskwaki used a sunflower poultice on burns to aid healing.

Cochiti crushed sunflower stems and applied it to wounds and cuts before dressing to speed up recovery and reduce infection.

*At the end of this post, there is a listing of sources used to gather the above information.

Traditional Uses

Several Native American tribes made dye from the flowers and seeds.  Depending on the type of sunflower, they could achieve black, blue, purple, red, or yellow colored dyes.

The oil obtained from the seeds has been used as a hair moisturizer and body rub by Native Americans.

Navajo used hollow sunflower stalks to make bird snares.

Today, sunflower seeds are used to supply animal feed and everybody knows placing a few cut sunflowers in a vase really cheers up a room.

Planting Sunflowers

Now that you know some of the different uses of sunflowers, you are probably thinking about growing them in your garden.  And to this I say, yes!  I ask that you consider growing a native  variety before picking up seed at your local Home Depot or Lowes.  Native varieties are more resistant to pests and are better acclimated to your environment.  By growing sunflowers, you will also be providing food for antelope, moose, deer, goldfinches, grouse, pheasant, quail, and many more animals.  Insects love sunflowers too!

Prepare your site using the guidelines from Dirty Wormy on How To Start Growing Wildflowers.

Next, in a container, mix the seeds with some sand if it’s available to you.  This will help distribute the seed evenly.  If you don’t have sand to mix in, that’s OK.  You can skip this step.

Sprinkle the seeds on your prepared site and gently rake them in.

Using a fine spray (so as not to wash away your seeds), water your garden bed deeply.  Keep your seeds well watered until  the plants are well established.  Personally, I tend to stay on the safe side, and keep them well watered the first year.

If you are growing a cultivated variety, rather than the wild variety, you may need to stake the stems to help support your sunflowers as they age.  They will likely need more water too.

For further information on planting sunflowers, you can visit the USDA site.

How To Harvest Sunflower Seeds

Some species of sunflowers have seeds that are very small and you may find they aren’t worth the effort.

In mid to late summer, after seeds have formed but before they’ve dried, cut off the flower heads.  Be sure to leave  a few inches of stalk attached to the flower heads for easy handling.  Gently but thoroughly shake off any insects.  *Be sure to leave some flowers and seeds on the plant for the animals and so the wildflower can reproduce the next year.  I like to follow what I call the One Third Rule.  1/3 for me; 1/3 for the animals; and 1/3 for the plant itself.

Hang the flower heads in a warm dry place, with enough space for each flower to breathe as it dries.  Once dry, hold the flower heads over a bowl or container and rub the seeds off.  Lay the seeds out in a single layer on a tray, preferably a dehydrator tray as it allows plenty of air circulation, and wait for the seeds to dry – about a week.  You could take a short-cut and dehydrate your seeds overnight, or until thoroughly dry and hard.  Store in a sealed container and use through-out Autumn and Winter.

Alternatively, you could try as the Hidatsa Native Americans did, and put your sunflower heads on the roof of your home for about 4 days during dry, sunny weather.  (I’m not sure how well this works.)  Once dry, place the sunflower heads face down on a hard, clean floor and beat them with a stick.  Pick up the heads and then collect the seeds off the ground.  The seeds were traditionally stored in baskets.  (Source Link)

Once you’ve harvested your seeds you’re ready to make all kinds of delicious recipes.  What are your favorite sunflower recipes or uses?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

PS
Recipes and projects with sunflowers are coming up in future posts!


Below is a listing of the books I used to gather some of the information in this post.  I highly recommend each one of them and find myself using them over and over again.  Click on the image for a larger view, description, and customer reviews on Amazon.  If you decide to purchase one of these books, I will make a small commission.  If you have questions about the books, please take a look at the reviews or feel free to ask me.  Thank you!

 

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