The sunflower is an ideal multipurpose plant from a permaculture perspective. Rather than growing a plant for just one product, such as one would with lettuce greens or potatoes, sunflowers offer something from every part of the plant. No wonder they were one of the first crops that humans in North America domesticated 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. Here’s a look at the many uses of sunflowers from flower to root, starting with the most obvious and showy end of the plant, that big, bold, sun-loving flower.
Sunflowers comprise the largest family of plants, the Compositae or Asteraceae family. Use the first of these names to identify the basic characteristics of the flower. Compositae, meaning composite, because the flower head is hundreds of tiny inflorescences grouped together into what appears to be a single flower head. The outer ring of what appear to be petals are a different type of flower than the flatter disc, full of florets. Each of these tiny flowers is equipped with the nectar and pollen that attract and feed a huge variety of pollinators and beneficial insects. Each disk flower (as opposed to ray flowers) also bears the potential to create a seed if pollinated. The anatomy of the disk flowers is timed to release pollen before it is receptive to pollen itself, that way ensuring outcrossing and increasing genetic diversity. These abundant, heavy, bright and colorful heads full of fertility are favorites at farmers markets and can sell for $10 to $20 per bundle.
Sunflower seeds became a large-scale commodity crop in the late 1970s, but these flowers have long been valued for the nutrient-rich oils. Indigenous peoples selected varieties of native sunflowers and processed the seeds into meal and extracted the oil, yet the history of commercial sunflower seed production bounces all over the globe. Russian varieties eventually made it to farms in the American Midwest and were first commercially used in poultry feed. Bird seed is still a big reason for growing sunflowers for market, or you could provide that same service by sharing the bounty with wild birds right on your farm. Providing sunflower seeds for birds on a feeding tray will attract a good share of birds that are considered bullies in the bird world, such as European starlings and grackles. However, finches, cardinals, jays, nuthatches, grosbeaks and chickadees will feast on the standing seedheads while those bigger birds don’t have such an easy meal.
Stalks are among the underappreciated plant parts that provide a huge and obvious service. Stalks create structure. The backbone of the sunflower is rigid, coarse and tough. Naturally, stalks make nice building materials on large and small scales. Industrial agriculture can upcycle the stems and add them as a component of thermal insulation, along with other plant byproducts. On the hobby farm scale, sunflower stalks provide a great natural trellis. The traditional companion planting of the Three Sisters is most commonly thought of as corn, beans and squash. However, a fourth sister can be cultivated alongside those and works especially well if you grow a smaller variety of corn and need more vertical support for pole beans. Other than interplanting for the structural support, sunflowers also provide the attractive landing pad for large pollinators that will then visit bean flowers, an added benefit of growing them in close proximity.
As overlooked as the stems of sunflowers, the plant’s leaves hold medicinal qualities. They’ve been used in decoctions to treat lung infections and reduce fevers. The astringent properties of the leaf can be a quick healer of cuts or abrasions in the field.
Roots & Tubers
The roots of sunflowers have a symbiotic relationship with corn in no-till crop rotation systems. They utilize the same root channels, exerting less energy to create a taproot, and they benefit from the same mycorrhizae. Even though sunflowers need a lot of water, they improve soil aggregation, which helps the soil retain moisture through the winter. If you are more inclined to grow perennials, the sunchoke will reward you with edible tubers. A low-maintenance native species of sunflower, the sunchoke’s starchy tubers are delicious raw or cooked, and they support the intestinal ecosystem by providing inulin.
The glory of sunflower seeds doesn’t end with cracking the shell and enjoying the tender meat inside or watching the brilliant yellow face turn to capture the sun’s rays. Sunflower sprouts are easy, delicious and very healthy. Sprouting any type of seed is a great way to add fresh microgreens to your diet in the winter. Eating a sprout is similar to eating an entire plant, with all those nutrients and enzymes in a compact, digestible and tasty little package. Scaling down substantially from the millions of acres populated by sunflowers grown specifically for their oil, consider sprouting your own personal microfarm, easy and simple enough for a child to manage and harvest.