No task is too tall for sunflowers

For kids: If this flower were a basketball player, it could dunk – but that's not why people have been using it for thousands of years.

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    Farmer's market: In the summer, Bostonians can pick up a batch of sunflowers in Copley Square.
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When native Americans needed flour, color dyes, medicine, or building materials, they turned to one plant – a common plant that grew wild all over North America. This plant was the sunflower.

Native Americans began using sunflowers as a source of food thousands of years ago. They used rocks to smash and grind seeds into flour. The flour was mixed with water, vegetables, or spices to make cakes and breads. Some native American tribes squeezed sunflower seeds to get oil for cooking. Sunflower seeds were cracked open and eaten as a snack. American Indians also made a sunflower seed butterball, much like a peanut butter ball, that could be carried as a snack.

Native Americans found uses for sunflower oil, too. They used it on their skin and hair. Sunflower oil rubbed on skin provided protection from the sun. They discovered that rubbing sunflower oil on their hair made it soft and smooth.

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They also used other parts of the sunflower plant. Sunflower hulls (the outer covering of seeds) were boiled in water to make a coffeelike drink. The hulls and seeds were used to make purple and black dyes. Yellow dye could be made from the petals of the sunflower plant. These dyes were then used on clothes and baskets, as well as for face paint.

Because sunflowers grew rapidly to great heights, often up to 12 feet tall, Indians used the stalks for building materials. During cold winters, they – and also early pioneer settlers – burned dry sunflower stalks as fuel to keep warm.

So you can see how versatile sunflowers are. They can be eaten, they can be used to dye cloth, and they can be transformed into building materials. Today, the sunflower is one of the most recognizable plants throughout the world. It's pretty, and, as you've just read, it's also useful.

Make a sunflower garden

Sunflowers are easy to grow. You can buy seeds at a garden center orhome store. Choose a type, such as Mammoth, that will grow 10 or 12 feet tall.

Look for a place in the sun to plant yourseeds. It should be a spot where the sunflowers won't shade otherplants; planting beside a fence is good. Place four seeds in the loosesoil around a fence post. Or if planting along the edge of a vegetableor flower garden, place the seeds 9 to 11 inches apart in a row.

Waterthe soil well after planting and keep it damp until you see littlegreen sprouts pushing above the soil. Then water whenever the soil isdry an inch below the surface. (Stick your finger into the soil andfeel if it's dry or damp.) Use some liquid fertilizer each month tohelp the plants grow.

You can cut sunflowers and putthem in a vase of water indoors to admire. To use the seeds in thetreat below, wait until fall, when the petals drop off the flowers,remove the seeds, and let them dry.

Sunflower Seed Butterballs

1/2 cup hulled sunflower seeds (no shells)

1/2 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky)

2/3 cup honey

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 to 1/2 cup flour

Shredded coconut for outer coating

Usinga large spoon (or your hands), mix sunflower seeds, peanut butter,honey, cocoa power, and 1/4 cup flour in a large mixing bowl. If themixture is too sticky, add more flour a little at a time.

Shape into balls about the size of golf balls. Roll balls in shredded coconut to coat.

Makes about 10.

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