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The Healing Effects of Sunflowers


Sunflowers are an almost universal symbol of hope, healing and joy. Their bright heads track the sun in gardens across the nation, but they’re more than just a pretty face. They’re also a productive oil, food and florists’ crop and can help build your soil in many ways – ways that we’re only just beginning to understand.

Let’s have a look at the many ways that growing sunflowers might provide healing effects in your garden and perhaps even in your life. Body, soul…and soil.

Growing Healing Sunflowers for The Soil

Sunflowers as aerators

Some sunflowers can easily top ten feet in their race to the sun, and with that kind of weight, they need a strong network of roots to anchor them firmly in place. Those roots (including a very long tap root) can work average soils even better than a gardener’s spade, aerating soil structure instead of destroying it.

If your soils are extremely compacted however, the job can be more difficult for a sunflower. It is wise to give the soil a good slow soaking before planting your seeds and keep it moist as root development occurs.

Sunflowers as radiation remediators

"Phytoremediation" is a fairly new industry that stems from research conducted over the last few decades. It came to prominence after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster contaminated soils and water in many parts of the Ukraine. At that time, researchers grew sunflowers suspended on rafts in nearby radioactive ponds and found their roots to contain specific radioactive isotopes at levels thousands of times higher than the surrounding water. Research is still ongoing by the EPA and others in the scientific community to understand how the dense, fleshy roots of sunflowers can help remediate water and soils in areas affected by radioactive waste, and there is much hope for harnessing this knowledge to help with future disasters.

woman looking up at extra tall sunflower
Extra-tall sunflowers have extra-long tap roots, perfect for loosening soils.

Sunflowers as lead remediators

Despite much anecdotal evidence over the years, research shows that sunflowers and other plants have less of an effect on a more common urban soil contaminant: lead. Lead has a low solubility in soil, particularly when soil pH is high, and is therefore difficult to phyto-extract, but it is possible to make it less bio-available, using high quantities of organic matter as well as phosphate and iron-rich compost or fertilizers to, in effect, lock up the lead in the soil.

It is possible that many people that grow sunflowers and report a significant change in their soil lead levels are experiencing the lead-stabilization effects of amending their soil with phosphate-rich organic matter in their quest to give their sunflowers plenty of nutrients. Cultivation and tilling of that soil with amendments can also cover the top few inches of contaminated soil - effectively lessening the amount of airborne lead dust in the soil.

If you are dealing with suspected contaminated soil, the most important thing you can do first is to test it. Luckily, this is an easy process.

Getting a soil test

It’s always wise to have a professional test done in a new garden, but if you suspect lead or metals contamination, it’s essential. Comprehensive soil tests are available for a small testing fee in most states through the state’s cooperative extension service – sometimes metals contamination is even part of the basic lawn and garden soil test. If your state extension doesn’t provide this service, look to your neighboring states. Test results will not only give you an accurate idea of your soil health, but will usually suggest specific ways to up your soil fertility and balance your pH for common vegetables and ornamental plants.

Many of us don’t have the budget for full-scale dig & replace remediation – but we also may not be dealing with terribly toxic sites. If tests show that you’re dealing with a low contamination in your soil, don’t let the benefits of growing sunflowers and other crops be trumped by concerns over lead. Research shows that utilizing good growing and hygiene practices in your urban garden (particularly when children are involved) is usually enough to mitigate low levels of contamination.

Growing sunflowers and amending with hefty amounts of compost – thereby increasing soil phosphates – might be a safe and effective way over time to correct the problem. It is recommended that tests can be conducted annually over the course of several years, charting the progress that your soil makes.

sunflower in the sun
The more sun you provide for your sunflowers, the less likely they are to need staking.

How to grow sunflowers

If you’re trying to make a difference to your soil, the more sunflowers you can grow, the better. However you need to follow a few guidelines so they stay healthy and happy.

Sunflowers are not a difficult plant to grow, but they do require a very sunny position and good drainage for best flowering. Sow seeds ½ inch deep about 12 inches apart in a moderately fertile soil and keep moist as the seedlings establish strong roots. If you wish to sow seeds a little heavier as ‘insurance,’ that can be a wise move – just make sure that you thin seedlings early on, selecting your strongest specimens. This should be done by the time the seedlings are 3-4 inches tall to promote strong flowering and healthy plants.

Learn how to grow sunflowers in detail.

Growing Healing Sunflowers for The Body

Growing sunflowers for food and medicine has a rich tradition with Native Americans, who used these native seeds in everything from flour-based cakes to cooking oil. These days, Americans still have a love affair with sunflower seeds as a rich source of protein, vitamins and amino acids, and an easy way to choose a healthy snack.

If you’re growing sunflowers for food however, make sure that you are cultivating them in good, healthy soil, free from contaminants.

Roasted sunflower seeds

Who doesn’t love a handful of roasted sunflower seeds? These seeds are very easy to hull with your fingers if you’re putting together a quick salad and want some extra protein, but many people love to eat them as snacks in the shell, hulling them with their teeth and spitting out the salty shells. Roasting is an easy process – once you’ve harvested the seeds, all you need is oil, salt and a warm oven. Good-sized seeds from larger varieties are your best choice – varieties such as Russian Mammoth, or Mammoth Grey Stripe will make wonderful roasted snacks.

How to Harvest Sunflower Seeds for Planting, Roasting, and Feeding the Birds.

Sprouted sunflower seeds

Sunflower seeds can be sprouted much like alfalfa or mung beans – but you must make sure you are buying raw, hulled seeds. Sprouts give a succulent, nutty crunch to salads, sandwiches and just about anything else you can put on a plate, and are a rich source of healthy building blocks for the body. They can be sprouted with just a mason jar and take up very little room on your countertop. Make sure to rinse them well at least twice a day.

Sunflower microgreens

Using microgreens in our everyday cuisine has become extremely popular over the last few years – and with good reason. The 3-4 inch ‘baby’ greens have a rich, sunflower flavor, are packed with nutrients and amino acids and add a healthy touch to any meal. Seeds can be sprouted in trays of soil inside under lights or in a sunny windowsill and will germinate within 7-10 days – ready to clip and eat within two weeks. Many people prefer growing sunflower seeds as microgreens instead of sprouts because hulled seeds are not necessary and the taste is the same. The small amount of soil used can be dumped on the compost pile, once the greens have been harvested. Black oil sunflower seed is a terrific, economical choice when growing microgreens.

sunflower shoots
Sunflower shoots are a tasty, nutritious addition to salads and other dishes.

Growing Healing Sunflowers for The Soul

Growing sunflowers as cutting flowers

There’s a reason why sunflowers are so popular, even with non-gardeners. A bunch of sunflowers is a beautiful, cheap way to give you or someone else a bit of a lift when life gets stressful. So why not grow them specifically as cut flowers?

entire fields of sunflowers
Entire fields of sunflowers are popping up for "pick your own" operations and to harvest seeds for the oil that fuels tractors.

There are so many types of sunflowers available – both annual and perennial cultivars – that it can be daunting to choose one for cutting. A medium sized flower is preferable (between 4-6 inches), so look for cultivars that are not overlarge and most often grown for seed. With colors in bright yellow, screaming orange, burnt chestnut and fire-engine red, you’re sure to find one that brightens your vases and your cutting garden – choosing from old favorites like Autumn BeautyMoonshineTaiyo, or Domino.

When flowers are blooming it can be hard to pick them and ‘ruin’ your outside display, so choose a sunny spot for your sunflower cutting garden that is not front-and-center in your garden. Average-to-moist soils are best in organically enriched soil. Sunflowers can tolerate difficult conditions, but if you are growing them specifically for the vase, you want the best flowers possible. Give them a footing in soil laced with compost and they will shine.

Harvest your flowers when a few petals have begun to unfurl from the center and choose a time to harvest early in the morning so they are hydrated and refreshed. Bring a bucket of water with you to the garden to plunge the stems immediately upon cutting. The cut plants will not flower again and the roots of annual varieties can be pulled and put onto the compost heap.

Growing sunflowers as birdseed

If you adore having birds on your feeder – just wait until you see them working on the plants you’ve cultivated for them! Finches, cardinals, blackbirds, mourning doves, tufted titmice and chickadees will be thrilled you’re adding sunflowers to your garden, and you’ll have the pleasure of watching the pairing of flora and fauna play out in your own backyard.

You don’t even need to harvest the seeds. Leave the ripened seed heads alone and the birds will take care of all the hard work. If you wish to harvest them yourself and spread the bounty out over a few months of winter, cut the seed heads when most of the seeds are ripened and plump (there are almost always unripened seeds in the center of the flower) and allow the heads to dry on a cookie sheet somewhere dry and warm. When they are fairly dry and come apart with a little encouragement, pull the seeds off and store in jars or freezer bags.

Some excellent varieties to try: Black OilRussian MammothMammoth Grey Stripe.

Giving the gift of sunflower seeds

One of the great joys in life is giving to others. What about giving a friend the gift of flowers with instructions and ingredients to grow them again, long after the initial bouquet fades?

Cut a few of your cutting garden sunflowers, or buy a bouquet at a favorite farmers market and arrange them in a tall mason jar to keep them fresh, tying the stems loosely with raffia or a rustic twine. To the twine, attach a small cellophane bag of sunflower seed of one of your favorite cutting varieties with quick written instructions on how to grow a bouquet in their own garden. Your friend will love the flowers, but truly appreciate the time you took to ensure that there will be even more flowers in the future!

Some cutting varieties to try: Autumn BeautyRed SunMoonshineHenry Wilde or Domino

sunflower seeds

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