Sunflowers: The Cheery Healers

If the bright-yellow blooms of sunflowers beckon to you, you’ll love even more their whole-plant contributions to your garden and health.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: Dawn Combs

Do you grow sunflowers in your garden? We do. To us, it isn’t a garden without them. They’re wonderful companion plants, attracting pollinators with their heavy pollen load and providing both shade and natural fencing. Sunflowers attract hummingbirds in the summer and feed birds that don’t migrate all winter long. Their sturdy stalks attract ants, which feed on aphids that attack your tender. We pair sunflowers with cucumbers, which love to climb them. In late summer, we plant a fall crop of salad greens in their cool, shade.

This time of year, our garden is blooming and not just with plants that will provide us with food. There is nothing better than looking out across the property and seeing a solid row of golden yellow against a crisp, blue pre-August sky. There’s nothing better—that is, until you realize what these sunflowers can do for us.

Natural Sun Dial
The first time I was ever really taken with the sunflower was during family visit to North Dakota. My cousins helped me to climb to the roof on one of their barns. Once there, we could see for what seemed like miles and several of the fields were planted solid with sunflowers. Seen in mass, it was almost like looking at the sun. It’s little wonder that cultures around the world have revered the sunflower for its … well … sunniness. It happens to be one of the most obvious examples of a plant mechanism called heliotropism, where the flower moves each day to track the progress of the sun.

Health Powerhouse
Sunflower seeds are well-known food sources. They are high in vitamins A, D and E and magnesium, so they can be applied to a number of health problems. I generally recommend them to my male customers to maintain prostate health. Well-known as a gentle diuretic, the seeds move toxicity out of the body through the kidneys.

Most people would be surprised to find that the entire sunflower plant has been used throughout history in various cultures both internally and externally. The flower petals are used as a natural dye but are also diuretic and anti-inflammatory. The leaves, flowers and seeds have all been used in teas and poultices for respiratory infections associated with high fever. If you get bitten by something or have a sore spot while you garden, you might find that a crumpled sunflower leaf under a bandage is just the relief you were looking for.

Grow Your Perfect Sunflower
There are many types of sunflower these days. Quite a lot of them will actually note that they are “pollen-free.” This is a desirable quality only in the flower trade where a bouquet that stains your tablecloth is not a favorite. There’s nothing wrong with growing these varieties, but if you want the health benefit and edible seeds, grow an heirloom or field variety, as well.

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