People have been growing sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) for centuries, and today, thousands of acres of farmland are devoted to raising this vibrantly colored annual flower. Not only do sunflowers add ornamental value to a landscape, but some cultivars also have edible seeds prized for snacking. If you have sunny spots in your backyard, you can grow and harvest sunflower seeds.
Commonly Grown Edible Sunflowers
Certain sunflower cultivars are used for cut flowers. Other varieties are grown to attract birds, bees and other wildlife to a garden. Still other types of sunflowers are best if you're hoping for a big harvest.
Commonly grown annual edible sunflower varieties include:
- 'Super Snack Mix': True to its name, this 5-foot-tall variety produces extra large seeds for snacking. The one drawback is that unlike other sunflower varieties that may grow multiple flowers, 'Super Snack Mix' plants only grow one 10-inch-wide flower per individual plant.
- 'Hopi Black Dye': Go back through the sunflower plant's history with this variety, one of the original kinds of sunflowers grown by American Indians. It gets exceptionally tall, reaching approximately 9 feet.
- 'Royal Hybrid': This variety has been hybridized to produce an extra amount of seeds. The plant grows up to 7 feet tall and grows multiple flowers, with each flower head measuring approximately 8 inches in diameter.
Basic Growing Requirements
Most edible sunflowers, including 'Super Snack Mix,' 'Hopi Black Dye' and "Royal Hybrid' are annual plants that originate from the green prairies of North America. Thus, they prefer well-drained soil that's consistently moist. For optimal growth and seed production, sunflowers also require full sun — that's a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight a day. More is better.
Seeds can be directly sown outdoors any time after the last frost date in your region has passed. Plant the seeds approximately 1 inch deep and 6 inches apart, then thin the seeds to 2 to 3 feet apart once the plants are a few inches tall.
Signs of Harvest-Ready Flowers
Most sunflowers are ready for harvesting 90 to 100 days after planting, but a few telltale signs exist that indicate exactly when a flower head is prime for picking:
- Check the back of the flower's head. It should have an even, brown appearance and feel dry.
- Review the flower's overall appearance. It should have lost most, if not all, of its yellow petals.
- Inspect the seeds in the front of the flower head. They should have black and white stripes and not be yellow or green in any way.
Sunflower Harvest and Storage
Once the flower head is mature, it's time to harvest it.
Cut the flower head off of the sunflower plant, but leave approximately 12 inches of stem attached to the flower. This gives you something to hold when handling the flower head.
Hold the flower head over the bucket.
Rub your hand across the face of the flower head. The plump seeds will dislodge easily and fall into the bucket.
Empty the bucket into a paper bag or a cloth bag. Store the bag in a cool, dark and dry location with a lot of air circulation.
Enjoy sunflower seeds raw or roast them to add new layers of flavor.
Place the seeds in a saucepan and cover them with salty water made with a ratio of 1/4 cup of salt for every 2 quarts of water required.
Simmer on a stove for two hours, then take the pan off of the stove and let the seeds soak overnight.
Drain the water and place the soaked seeds on paper towels. Pat them gently to dry them.
Set the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Place the sunflower seeds on a baking sheet and roast them for 30 minutes or until the seeds are a golden brown.
Take the seeds out of the oven and pour them into a bowl.
Toss the roasted seeds with butter, using 1 teaspoon of butter for every cup of roasted sunflower seeds.
Allow the seeds to cool before enjoying them as a snack.