All about sunflowers.

I’ll admit it, I’m a sunflower lover, they are truly my favourite flower and perhaps thing to grow here on the homestead. They are such a quintessential late summer/fall icon in these parts and now seemingly becoming social media famous with selfies in sunflower mazes and fields becoming an iconic post to make come August-and who can blame them?! They are beautiful, low maintenance, hardy as heck and can have several uses in your garden. If you are new to gardening or a seasoned grower I’m about to give you the lowdown on why you should consider this stunning flower for your space and share some lore and story along the way-so stick with me here!

A group of tall sunflowers stand in front of a house in a garden bed. They are a variety of yellow to orange.
A group of sunflowers

A Brief History of Sunflowers

The sunflower is a part of the Helianthus genus of flowers. The name Helianthus comes from the Greek words, Helios for sun and anthos which means flower. They are known for turning towards the sun and following the sun across the sky as it moves east to west. Young sunflowers are able to do this and then they “reset” themselves at night ready for the new day, however once they reach maturity they are too heavy and they actually just stay in an Eastern facing position. As a rule of thumb though, they are sun lovers, hence the name.

The family comprises many, many different varieties, the most common being the Common Sunflower but there are some variations to this which I will look into later and I happen to be a fan of some of the more different varieties.

So in history, the sunflower was domesticated in Southern America, Mexico to be exact and seeds have been found as early as 2600 BC. Of course, domestication then spread throughout the Eastern parts of the US in a relatively short time after that. The sunflower was grown as an agricultural crop by Indigenous Peoples throughout much much the the Americas primarily for the edible seeds. The sunflower was also used by Indigenous Peoples to represent and depict their deities associated with the sun. It is thought that the sunflower was also used for bread as well as decorative purposes.

The sunflower then made it’s way across to Europe when the Spanish came to the Americas and they brought seeds back with them and of course it became a common cultivar throughout Europe and an agricultural commodity. Today, the sunflower has many uses from edible seeds, ornamental purposes, oil and as a fodder food for livestock.

Varieties of sunflowers

A single yellow sunflower with two bees in the centre
Sunflowers are a great way of attracting bees and pollinators in to your garden

There are a lot of varieties of sunflowers, the most common being, the “common sunflower” which stands tall with a single head and does not have branches coming from the stem. It’s the typical sunflower we see growing in fields, farms and in media.

Many varieties of sunflower are prized for their height and there are several”giant” specific sunflowers. As a fun fact, the world record for the tallest sunflower is 9.17 m or about 30 feet, grown in Germany by Hans Peter Schiffer. The tallest I could find in Canada was 7m tall in St. Mary’s, Ontario by Ron Hicks. Some giant varieties include Mongolian Giant and Russian Mammoth.

Sunflowers don’t just have to grow single flower and stem, there are other varieties available that grow multiple branches and the flowers produce multiple heads with many shades of color from yellow to burgundy, such as Monet’s Pallette sunflowers.

For container or balcony gardeners, there are also dwarf varieties available, one of my favorite shorter sunflowers are Teddy Bears. They have the most adorable fluffy heads and in my opinion will look amazing in a cut flower arrangement.

Growing Sunflowers

Sunflowers are especially easy to grow, I’m in zone 3 and they seriously need no nurturing or care I let them do their thing! They are very prolific and good at being self seeding annuals so they will drop their seeds around fall as the plant dies back or you can thresh the heads to remove the seeds and simply scatter in the fall as they will overwinter very well. I will say, we do cover our beds with compost and mulch before the snow hits here . They are incredible volunteer plants, for example you will tend to find just they have created whole new “patches” around your yard or you will find a lone voyager pop up in the lawn come spring. If you do want to stop them spreading you will have to pull the seedlings when you see them popping up in unwanted places.

I honestly suggest to folks that sunflowers are great starter flowers. As again, it is simply a matter of scattering seed and they will grow and take care of themselves. They do like water but are drought tolerant so they don’t need to be soaked and of course, they like sunny spots. Sunflowers also like room if they are to grow to a good height, depending on variety you choose to grow so you can intentionally plant with spacing such as a foot between seeds, or even more if growing a giant variety.

They can bloom well into the fall and out here in Alberta anyway, the lore goes that when the sunflowers are in bloom that’s when beekeepers can start pulling honey out of the hives. If you want to keep sunflower seeds do be aware that birds, squirrels and other rodents also enjoy these as a snack. We seed save but often we will get to a sunflower head and realize it has been thoroughly picked over by birds. Saving sunflower seeds is easy and fun, simply wait until the plant is dry and brittle and you can run your fingers over the head to collect the seeds or we really enjoy whacking or “threshing” the heads over a container and watching the seeds fall out! Then simply ensure they are dry, leave them to dry for a couple weeks on coffee filter papers or mesh plates and then store in a dry, sealed container.

On our Homestead, I find that patches of taller sunflowers in beds can actually be very useful as shade or partial shade providers for other items growing and it gives them some respite from the prairie sun.

A variety of sunflower hat has burgundy leaves blooms in a backyard
A Monet’s Palette Sunflower blooms in the backyard.

Lore and Tales of Sunflowers

Lastly, I thought it would be fun to discuss some tales, stories and lore surrounding sunflowers. These flowers are so recognizable and valuable to humans that they have played popular roles throughout cultures, art and stories. For example, as mentioned at the start they are a social media sensation, it is the “trending” cottagecore vibe to go and get photos taken in a sunflower field, and to be honest I don’t blame people because they do make the perfect backdrop for photos!

Also in our modern times, the sunflower has become a strong symbol of hope and strength, in particular as it is the symbol of Ukraine and of course with the conflict and dealing with the Russian invasion, the sunflower has become an important symbol of support for Ukraine. If you recall, a Ukrainian woman made worldwide news when she gave sunflower seeds to a Russian soldier and famously told him, “to put these in his pockets so at least flowers will grow when you lie here”.

Throughout history, sunflowers have been made famous through artwork such as Van Gogh’s sunflower series.

There are ancient myths surrounding sunflowers and the more well known Greek myth of Helios and Clytie, Clytie was a nymph who fell in love with Helios and he loved her back but then he found a new lover, Leucothoe and Clytie was jealous of this relationship. When Leucothoe’s father found out about her relationship with Helios he buried her alive. The reason he found out about the relationship was because of Clytie and so Helios was so enraged with her he turned her into a flower, the sunflower and Clytie even though she was a flower loved Helios so much she still followed him across the sky. Interestingly enough, if you recall sunflowers originated in the America’s, not ancient Greece and so historians actually think the myth was discussing the Heliotrope which is another flower from Greece that follows the sun. It does show how story can get turned and edited as people retell it to one another!

The sunflower also became associated with fertility and summer and so during festivals such as Litha, a northern European midsummer festival, a crown of necklace of sunflowers was traditionally worn. Modern pagans or folk practioners can also bathe in sunflower petals or spray a mixture of sunflower petals and water around a space for a “pick me up” when feeling down.

So if you are ready to start growing Sunflowers I have provided links to purchase seeds to the varieties I have mentioned. I will also link to my Etsy shop where I do sell sunflower petals as well as other flower petals for use in rituals or as curios for the more “witchy” folks. These will be launching towards the end of August so keep an eye out there as I am still collecting and drying many apothecary things from the garden.

A sunflower with yellow leaves with an orange ring in the center blooms.
A more yellow Monet’s Pallete sunflower blooming.

Find links to The Northern Grower Podcast, Etsy Store and Green Witch Seeds if you are interested in sunflowers (we only ship to Canada FYI)

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