“Are the petals and leaves of garden sunflower blooms toxic to eat?” Question from Caroline from Evansville, Indiana
Answer: Stick to the seeds when it comes to eating sunflowers. The flowers and leaf and stem hairs contain a mixed bag of chemicals called sesquiterpene lactones that commonly cause bad reactions in humans–both on the skin or if ingested. In fact, they commonly cause dermal allergies, so it’s smart to use gloves when cutting stems for arrangements.
These chemicals can also poison cattle. According to the Canadian Poisonous Plants Information System, cattle poisoned by sunflowers show the following symptoms: “circulatory failure, swaying of hind quarters, excitation, and collapse 1-3 h after ingestion. Postmortem findings include lung edema, small hemorrhages and congestion of intestinal blood vessels, and dark- colored blood (Cooper and Johnson 1984).” YUCK!!!
Fully matured sunflower seeds do not contain these bad chemicals, but immature seeds can, so be sure seed heads are fully mature and dry before harvesting any sunflower seeds for eating.
Annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are pure floral gold. Their immense blooms have an almost storybook quality. They track the sun, creating a glowing warm basin of golden pollen and sweet nectar to draw bees and butterflies. Abundant oil-rich seed heads follow, feeding both wildlife and humans. For Native Americans, sunflowers symbolized courage and were cultivated as the “fourth sister,” along with corn, beans, and squash.
Sunflowers are North American natives, with natural populations extending from southernmost Canada to Central Mexico. Native Americans first cultivated them nearly 3000 years ago, using them for food, dye, medicine, and ceremony. Colonists quickly adopted the flowers—growing them for food, livestock forage, and beauty. Today, the nearly one-billion-dollar sunflower industry has them farmed and manufactured for oil, food, birdseed, cut flowers, and gardening.
Cultivated sunflowers can be traced to two population centers in the central and eastern US, according to research. From these, hundreds of cultivated varieties have arisen with diverse heights, flower sizes, and colors ranging from gold to bronze, orange, burnished red, near black, pale yellow, and ivory. Vibrant new varieties serve the seed, cut flower, and gardening markets, but some of the best selections are Native American heirlooms—offering qualities that sustained peoples for thousands of years.
Sunflowers and Wildlife
Honeybees and native bees rely on annual sunflowers for pollen and nectar, along with butterflies and other nectar feeders. Mature seed heads become songbird feeding stations—attracting finches, nuthatches, cardinals, and titmice—while also attracting many small mammals. Wildlife prefers large-headed varieties, which can be cut, dried, and saved to feed birds through winter. Avoid growing pollenless sunflower varieties for bees, because they offer less food value to these pollinators.
Sunflowers for Seed
‘Mammoth Grey Stripe’ is the best-known seed sunflower! Its huge golden blooms are supported by strong stems able to hold the weight of the fully developed seed heads. The massive plants reach 10-12’ in height, and the heads of grey-striped seeds reach up to 12” across. The comparable ‘Mammoth Russian’ is slightly larger with golden petals and striped seed hulls. It reaches 14’ in height and bears 12-14” heads. ‘Giant White Seeded’ is another good seed producer with pure white seed hulls produced on 12” heads. Provide all large sunflowers with lots of space and expect many colorful goldfinches to visit as their heads develop. (Cut or cover any heads you want to save for winter birds!)
Native American Heirloom Sunflowers
Native American sunflower varieties have unique traits valued by the tribespeople that saved them over generations. The black-hulled ‘Hopi Black Dye’ has large flowers with yellow petals and black-brown centers. The near-black seed hulls were used by the Hopi people to dye wool and baskets. A great Native American variety for eating is ‘Arikara‘. First collected on the Louis and Clarke expedition, these golden sunflowers were grown by the Arikara people (in present-day Missouri) for their massive seed heads that can reach 16” across. The seeds of this variety also germinate under cooler conditions than many other sunflowers.
Sunflowers for Cutting
Sunflowers produce copious messy pollen, which is why pollenless varieties are preferred for cutting gardens. ‘Pro Cut’ has pollenless chocolate-brown centers and golden petals (much like a giant black-eyed-Susan) that look superb in arrangements. Children love ‘Teddy Bear’, a compact (2-3′), fully double, golden variety with minimal pollen. Choose ‘Sunrich Orange Summer’ for its yellow petals and pollenless brown centers. The deep burgundy ‘Prado Red‘ has almost black centers and bears many pollenless flowers perfect for cutting through summer.
Sunflowers for Gardens
Choose shorter or colorful, long-flowering, multi-branched sunflowers for a big garden show. The well-branched Autumn Beauty Blend sunflowers have long-flowering bold blooms in shades of gold and burnished-red. The 5-6’ plants are perfect for large borders. The ivory and pale yellow flowers of ‘Italian White’ are small, delicate, and borne in profusion on 5-7′, well-branched plants. Both perform well in big garden spaces!
There are lots of super-compact varieties good for small-space gardening. Pick the 1-2′ ‘Big Smile‘ for containers and really small gardens. Its dark-centered yellow flowers are cheerful and prolific. The slightly taller ‘Peach Passion’ is a 2-4’ variety with loads of small, peachy yellow flowers over a season.
Sunflowers take 50-110 days to bloom from seed, depending on the variety. Plant seeds outdoors in fertile, well-drained soil to a depth of 1-2″, or indoors under grow lights in pots of Black Gold Seedling Mix. Amending garden soil with Black Gold Garden Soil or Black Gold Garden Compost Blend will help facilitate germination and deep root growth. Give sunflowers full sun and lots of space to grow, especially tall varieties. Provide minimal care once established, aside from occasional watering in dry weather.
Refrain from planting sunflowers near areas where you intend to direct sow other seeds. Sunflowers excrete chemicals from their roots that reduce germination and seedling growth in many other plant species. This helps sunflowers naturally compete in the wild, but it can create problems in the garden.
Sunflowers are easy to grow, making them one of the best flowers for wildlife and enjoyment. They also self-sow, so you can expect interesting volunteers to pop up in your garden for years to come. Every garden needs a little sun from these cheerful, easy annuals.
The winter garden is not dead and desolate. Fruits of summer and fall still linger on stems, providing vital food to wildlife in the depths of winter. More often than not, these plants also offer seasonal interest, making them win-win additions to our landscapes.
Winter Seeds for Wildlife
It’s all about seeds and berries when it comes to forage for winter birds. For many woodland mammals—such as mice, voles, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer—nuts, berries, and roots are essential food sources. Some of these animals may not be the most welcome creatures in your garden, but the more you feed them along the periphery of your landscape, the less likely they are to forage in more intimate garden spaces near the home. Smaller herbivores also feed important winter predators, such as foxes, hawks, and owls, to keep home ecosystems healthy.
The most valued seeds for birds (see the table of common North American birds and their preferred forage plants below) come from flowers in the daisy family (Asteraceae), such as seeds from thistles and annual sunflowers (learn how to grow annual sunflowers here!), which are sold by the bag as winter bird seed. (Sunflowers always make a great garden addition, but thistle is a garden weed to avoid.) But, many other daisy-family members offer exquisite garden flowers as well as nutritious seeds for birds.
Popular fall-blooming daisies include asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and perennial sunflowers (Helianthus spp.). These provide superior food for seed-eating birds. Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) and black-eyed-Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) are two more summer and fall flowers in the daisy family that will keep birds coming to your garden if you allow the seed heads to dry and remain undisturbed until late winter when their wildlife value is past.
The seeds of some garden grasses are also popular with birds. Highly ornamental annual millet (Pennisetum glaucum) comes in shades of purple, burnished bronze, and gold and its upright seed heads are highly sought after by birds. ‘Jade Princess’ is a particularly garden-worthy form with vibrant green blades and burnished brown heads.
Many attractive perennial grasses are good food for wildlife. A grass for partially shaded locations is northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Its beautiful seed heads tend to shatter by early winter, but they are an important food for birds and rodents.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a very desirable small prairie grass with persistent seed heads that last into midwinter. The upright ‘Standing Ovation’, introduced by North Creek Nurseries of Landenberg, PA, has a strong upright habit and purplish-bronze winter color in addition to wildlife value.
The tall, breezy switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is one of the most popular of all large, bunching ornamental grasses. Its fine seed heads offer winter interest and feed animals. Seek out the tall, blue-green ‘Northwind’ and ‘Dewey Blue’ for their strong, upright habits and good seed set.
Winter Fruits for Wildlife
Crabapples, berries, hips and other colorful fruits of winter are also favored by winter animals of all kinds, particularly birds. They are also some of the easiest plants to grow in the winter landscape. Just be sure you have plenty of room and lots of light—many of these plants are sun-loving and relatively large.
The ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’) is a small fruiting tree with bright red pomes that remain beautiful into midwinter and are eaten by many winter birds, such as cedar waxwings. Crabapples also fall into this category. The red-fruited ‘Prairifire’ and Red Jewel™ and golden-fruited ‘Lancelot’, offer exceptional disease resistance as well as loads of beautiful winter fruits for wildlife.
Winterberries (Ilex verticillata), beautyberries (Callicarpa spp.), firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) and cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneasterapiculatus), are three highly landscape-worthy shrubs with beautiful berries for the birds. All have cultivated variants that can be found in most garden centers. Their persistent winter fruits are also gorgeous—adding lots of bright color to the yard and garden when little can be found.
Nuts of all forms are eaten mostly by larger wildlife. Oaks (Quercus spp.), walnuts (Juglans spp.), and beechnuts (Fagus spp.) all offer exceptional value to wildlife. Nut-producing shrubs, such as the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) are also fair game for the margins of any large garden or landscape and produce edible nuts that are just as tasty to homeowners as they are to squirrels and deer.
It is likely that many already have many of these plants in their yards, but it never hurts to add a few more to further beautify outdoor spaces while also making them more palatable to the birds and other animals. Dwindling habitat and food sources make our yards and gardens that much more important for providing much-needed winter forage for our animal friends.
Table: Common North American winter birds and their favorite foods from yard and garden
Try growing fifteen feet tall inside of 90 days and you’ll understand what it’s like to be a sunflower. If you’ve got Mammoth hybrid sunflowers in your garden, remember this if yours aren’t showing much vigor. Maybe they need an organic Power Bar to get energy levels back on track. It takes a lot of nitrogen to make a huge stalk. Phosphorous and potassium helps grow roots to hold it upright and form huge flowers packed with edible seed. Any quality OMRI Listed fertilizer formulated for flowers will work. Apply generously, mix into the soil and water well and often. Then stand back and watch your plants bolt skyward as they should.