Here comes the sunflower -- ornamental and edible

When the Pilgrim Fathers landed in Massachusetts in 1620, they found the Indians raising sunflowers, which at first glance was nothing new to them. Though exclusively North American in origin, sunflowers had become commonplace ornamentals in English and other European gardens by the time the Pilgrims set sail. What the newcomers soon learned on this side of the Atlantic, however, was that some could taste as good as they looked -- and the sunflower has done pretty well for itself ever since. Though most people may still think of the sunflower in terms of birdseed, snack foods, and maybe cooking oil, its resurgence as an ornamental is again under way and plant breeders are making them ever more attractive.

Recognizing the true native origins of the sunflower, the National Garden Bureau -- the educational arm of the American seed industry -- has made 1986 the ``Year of the Sunflower.'' By doing this the bureau hopes to publicize the sunflower's uniqueness and get more of them grown, both edible and ornamental, in home gardens.

The decorative types come with daisy-shaped flowers and other blooms that look like fully doubled chrysanthemums. They range in size all the way from 15-inch dwarfs to others that grow five to six feet tall. Colors come in yellow, primrose, white, mahogany red, and bronze. Some are bicolored. The ornamentals produce edible seeds, but they are so small that they are best left to the birds.

Not long after Spanish explorers took sunflower seeds back to Europe, the Russians began developing them for food. Apparently the Orthodox Church of the day banned so many oil-rich foods during the Lent observances that when the sunflower arrived, the devout quickly latched onto it as a way of getting a food oil without contravening church laws.

In 1880 edible sunflowers were first offered in a seed catalog in the United States under the name Mamouth Russian. This type and its derivatives are still the principal species grown for edible seeds and oil production in the US. The old varieties were huge. A reference is made in the early 1600s to one sunflower growing 24 feet tall, while 12 feet still is not uncommon. Modern hybrids tend to level out at six feet and mature in a remarkably quick 68 days compared with the almost five months needed by older varieties.

The sunflower will grow in just about any soil except one where there is standing water. But its ability to take up nutrients means that a good fertile soil will result in more vigorous growth and much meatier seeds.

Add compost and manure to the soil or a time-released general-purpose fertilizer. Sow seeds in a half-inch-deep furrow some six inches apart and cover with about one-eighth inch of fine soil. The furrow can be left to fill in naturally once the seeds are up and growing. Ideal soil temperature for germination is 70 degrees F. Young seedlings can take a light frost but not a deep freeze.

When the first true leaves appear, thin the large seed varieties to between 2 and 21/2 feet apart. Sunflowers can withstand hot dry weather but do benefit from periodic deep waterings.

Sunflowers cannot be grown with just one plant. There must be two for cross-pollination if seeds are to result. A lone bird-planted sunflower once grew in my yard to produce a couple of nice-looking blooms, but only empty hulls where fat seeds should have been.

Sunflower seeds are a nutritionally rich food. They can be eaten like nuts, chopped or ground into a flour and included in baked goods, or grown as a crisp salad green if harvested just before the first true leaves open. By using sunflower seeds, my vegetarian wife converted the stuffing for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners into a satisfying ``meat'' course for herself.

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