Monday, May 27, 2013

Specimen Spotlight: Sunflower

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Field of sunflowers - Source
Sunflowers are well-known by most people. You can often see them in fields that you pass as you drive along. Many people will grow a few in a garden. Let's explore the benefits of these North American natives.
  • Edible - flower buds, petals, seeds, sprouts ← especially tasty!
  • Bird friendly - birds love to perch on sunflowers once the stalks begin to stiffen. They also love to peck out the seeds in late summer and fall. FYI, there will be a lot of sunflowers coming up in that spot in the spring because more seeds tend to fall out than are actually eaten by the birds.
  • Poultry plant - naturally, sunflower seeds are good for chickens and other poultry. Most chickens will eat the seeds straight from the heads. Chickens and ducks will enjoy sunflower starts or the new leaves on larger sunflowers, however, chickens especially tend to turn their beaks up at the larger, older leaves because they are not as tender, as long as they have other alternatives. They also like sunflower petals. Besides food, when many are grown together they provide a shady area for chickens to scratch around or have dust baths. And, when they have grown a few feet, sunflowers are sturdy enough that you do not need to worry about poultry damaging them.
  • Rabbit friendly - rabbits like to chew on the shells and eat the seeds. They will also eat the young plants if they do not have access to much in the way of green plants, but it is best to not let them eat too many
  • Wind break - especially great when you need a wind break now and not in ten years, although do not expect it to do as much as a wind break using trees. However, it does an admirable job of protecting small shrubs and herbaceous plants. Sunflowers work especially well if you are able to plant them on an elevated location, thus increasing their effective height and, in consequence, their ability to block the wind.
  • Green manure - this refers to a cover crop that is grown with the intent of being used also as a means of adding fertility to the soil via decomposing plant material. Sepp Holzer includes sunflowers as one of the species in a list of good green manure plants because of the large amount of leaves in a relatively short time.
  • Slope stabilization - used in a mix of other plants to improve steep slopes' ability to remain in place and absorb moisture during rainfall, thus preventing erosion and soil fertility loss.
  • Honey plant - bees like sunflowers because they provide a lot of good pollen and nectar, and the resulting honey is reputed to be quite delicious
  • Insectary - not just bees like sunflowers. I have seen many different types of insects stopping by the sunflower snack bar. Lacewings and parasitic wasps are also known to be frequent visitors of blooming sunflowers.
  • Sun trap - when organized in a U-shape with the open end facing south, you can create a sun trap as a means of creating a warm microclimate inside the U.
  • Nutrient accumulator - sunflowers will find trace amounts of calcium, manganese, copper, and zinc in the earth and then store these minerals in their leaves. When the leaves die and decompose, the minerals become readily available to other plants.
  • Mulch maker - the leaves and thin stalks are especially good as mulch
  • Medicinal
  • Flowers! - besides fresh flowers, you can also dry the flowers for decorative uses
  • Poles - last year's sunflower "trunks" work great as tipi trellis poles
  • Drought tolerant - when well established
  • Full sun - um, yeah, sunflower. 'Nuf said.
  • Inner pith - the inside of the stalk is one of the lightest naturally occurring substances and is used for all kinds of things, including life-saving devices
  • Dye - flowers can be used to make a yellow dye. A purple-black dye can be made from the seeds of a certain variety used by the Hopi Native American tribe.
  • Fuel and kindling - when dried, the stalk can be used as fuel for a fire. The resulting ash is high in potassium. The branches and the seed shells are good kindling.
  • Fiber - found in the stalk, it is used to make both paper and fine quality cloth
  • Roots - these can go as much as ten feet deep and also have a significant lateral spread
  • Tall - not all sunflowers are tall - I have one variety that only reaches two feet - but some varieties can get to twelve feet or more in height.
  • Companion - while not friendly towards potatoes or pole beans, sunflowers typically grow very well with cucumbers, melons and corn.
  • Heliotropic? - this means the movement of a plant part in relation to the position of the sun. A common belief is that sunflowers follow the movement of the sun through the sky. While this is true for unopened flower buds, once the flower opens it remains in a fixed location.
  • Phytoremediation and rhizofiltration - these big words mean that sunflowers are used to clean up the environment, such as removing toxins from the soil and harmful bacteria from water. They were even used to clean up Chernobyl and are in use in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
  • Latex - some development programs are in place to create a variety of sunflower that can be used to manufacture nonallergenic rubber
  • Allelopath - some varieties exude a substance that deters other plants from growing in the vicinity of the sunflower. I must add, though, that it does not seem to affect much in my garden except potatoes and pole beans.


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