Sunflowers are not only gorgeous plants, they serve a number of beneficial purposes. We plant them here at Green Door Gourmet not just for their beauty, but also for the myriad of ways that they help to make our farm more sustainable.We’re holding onto summer for a bit longer with a late-summer sunflower field walk.
Sunflowers are part of the Helianthus genus, which is made up of about 70 different varieties of flowers. The plants range from about 2 feet in height to about 9 feet tall. The flowers vary in color from deep reds to bright yellows. As young plants, sunflowers track the sun throughout the day, a process called heliotropism. Once mature and flowering, they generally face east.
Part of the magic of growing sunflowers is what happens underground. Although the above-ground flower is stunning, we are equally impressed by the ways that sunflowers improve soil health and fertility.
Sunflowers have a single root that can extend up to 5 feet underground. Their root system allows them to access water and nutrients that are sequestered deep in the soil. This means that sunflowers require little to no supplemental watering or fertilization as they add crucial biomass to our fields. The root system of the sunflowers dig deep-breaking up compacted soil and improving the soil structure as they grow.
We use sunflowers as a cover crop here at Green Door Gourmet. Crop rotation is an integrative approach to agriculture, where fields are planted with different crops each year (or every few years). Cover crops are planted over fields that are fallow, and serve to condition the soil while it takes a break from production. For instance, we may plant corn (a nitrogen lover) one year, followed by sunflowers (a nitrogen depositor), the next year. While we would harvest the corn and use it for production, the sunflowers are not harvested and require little intervention during their growth cycle.
You may notice an abundance of wildlife as you stroll through the Green Door Gourmet sunflower fields. Sunflowers provide an excellent habitat for birds, with a ready food source in the form of sunflower seeds. In a study done by the USDA, it was found that 78 migratory bird species used sunflower fields as a stopover habitat during their annual fall migration.
Bees and butterflies love to feast on the flowers. Within the disc at the center of each sunflower bloom there are hundreds of other tiny blooms. These are loaded with pollen and nectar.The bees and butterflies are attracted to the large, colorful flowers and abundant nectar. As bees move from plant to plant, they pollinate other sunflowers.
It has been proven time and time again that people benefit from being outdoors. We respond to being outside with increased serotonin production which results in a feeling of contentedness. Outdoor activity is a wonderful stress-reliever, and has even been shown to improve immune system function.
Sunflowers have also been consumed since 3000 BC, when Native Americans first used the seeds as a snack or ground into flour. Today, we still eat sunflower seeds as a snack, but there are many other ways to add sunflower to your diet. The seeds can be pressed into oil, which contains high levels of oleic acid and helps to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. The leaves can be plucked from young flowers and sautéed like any other hearty green. The young stalks taste a bit like celery, and can be chopped into a salad. The petals have a slightly bitter flavor, but they are also suitable for salads and garnishes. Lastly, the sunflower bud can be enjoyed--simply cook it and eat it as you would an artichoke.
When you see a sunflower, appreciate it for what it is. It is a cover-crop superstar. A shelter for birds and butterflies. A therapeutic escape from your busy life. A source of food that is as stunning as it is tasty. But most of all, a sunflower is a beautiful plant. Come experience an abundance of beauty for yourself here at Green Door Gourmet.