As American as they come

There is nothing subtle about a sunflower. Poke a seed into the ground and a thick stalk will zoom up, with broad leaves at the sides and a huge flower on top, a gentle giant wearing a sporty grin and sending a message of affable openness. All pollinators welcome. All birds invited to supper.

Sunflowers earn their name many times over. The flowers, with their golden ray petals, are sun-shaped, and to some extent follow the sun’s path, facing east in the morning to catch the first rays (the French name, tournesol, comes from this trait). The plant demands full sun and long days to grow and bloom. Its edible seeds supply ample amounts of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.

Sunflowers also are quintessentially American. Members of many native North American tribes used the roots and stalks medicinally, the seeds as a dye and as a food source. Seeds were ground up to make meal, and the oil extracted for food and cosmetics.

European settlers considered them a pest (as some Midwestern farmers still do). And it is still a battle to protect some of our native species from loss of habitat — and the consequent loss of valuable gene stocks. It was not until the plant achieved fame abroad that we started to take serious notice of it on home ground. Russians in particular embraced sunflowers. Van Gogh, as we all know, fell under their spell. And many American seed catalogs now have extensive sunflower selections.

Most people think of sunflowers as ornamental plants, especially now that they are so gorgeously varied. Colors include orange, pale yellow, cream, rusty red and a maroon so deep it’s almost black. There are singles, doubles, round ones like fuzzy balls. The centers might be small and greenish; they might be so large and black they look like a total solar eclipse, rimmed with flickering gold rays. Some are pollen-less, and hence longer-lasting.

Some are branched, such as my favorite, “Soraya”; others are more single-stemmed, such as my other favorite, “Vincent’s Choice” (both from Johnny’s Selected Seeds).

Heights range from short to a record-breaking 25 feet, flower size from a few inches across to over a foot (that record, for the seedhead alone, is 32 inches).

Gardeners who wish to grow sunflower seeds as an edible crop have several options. The seeds can be toasted in oil and salt and eaten hulls and all — good fiber, but not to everyone’s taste. A time-honored technique for separating hulls and kernels, known as “chew ’n spit,” requires an agile tongue. You also can do it by rolling or hammering the seeds to loosen the hulls, then soaking the seeds in water until the hulls float upward.

Toasted or raw, the kernels are used the same way you would use nuts — as snacks, in cereals, sprinkled on salads, or to lend protein and crunch to baked goods like cookies and muffins. Usually the nutritious, polyunsaturated oil is extracted by means of machinery, though the Indians did it by boiling the seeds in water and skimming off the buoyant oil that rose to the top.

Even if you only want to admire your sunflowers, there’s always a place for them in a kitchen garden. Somehow they just look right there — as sentinels at the corners, or in a row along the north side of the fence. They’re even picturesque in winter, hanging their shaggy heads as the birds peck out the last seed remnants.

I once planted them in a circular bed in the middle of my herb garden. I put a tall, dark red variety called “Moulin Rouge” at the center, surrounded by a ring of the pale, mid-height “Lemon Ice.” Around the edge I sowed a circle of “Big Smile,” which forms big, classic, yellow sunflower blooms atop plants a mere foot tall.

One of the best sunflower plantings I ever saw was created by Moses Pendleton for his dance troupe Momix. The shape of a giant sun, with extended rays, had been drawn in sunflowers, planted in a field close to an acre in size. Dances were performed in the center.

No matter how you integrate sunflowers into your garden they are guaranteed to bring a kind of childlike joy — in fact I can think of no better flower for a child to grow. What a sense of power and discovery to evoke such a splendid performance from one seed! It also is fun to see where sunflowers crop up with the help of birds or mice — often in unexpectedly perfect places.

My greatest sunflower triumph came when I planted a display garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in London, to surround a glasshouse designed by Alitex, Ltd., a British company. An “American” theme was requested, so I mixed vegetables, herbs and flowers together inside a classic picket fence, to create an old-fashioned dooryard garden. I’d wanted tall sunflowers, but all I could find was “Big Smile.”

Throughout the show visitors hung over the fence to look at the little plants with the big heads. They found them “cheeky” and cute. So cheerful. So American.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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