Vincent Van Gogh produced a whole series of sunflower paintings after he left Holland. According to one account, he began painting Helianthus annuus as decoration for the bedroom walls of his friend Paul Gauguin.
I don’t know how Gauguin and his boudoir benefited from that artistic creativity, but for the rest of us, Van Gogh’s work provides a glimpse of sun and summer no matter what the calendar says.
Sunflowers are native to the Americas (the seeds were taken to Europe in the 16th century). My Fedco seed catalog tells me that sunflower remains a few thousand years old were found in Mexico’s Tabasco region. Fedco sells about 13,000 packets of sunflower seeds annually, and offers almost twenty varieties, from the traditional Mammoth Grey Stripe to less-familiar types like Schnittgold and Vanilla Ice.
Sunflowers prefer a fertile, moist, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline (a pH of 6.0 to 7.5). That being said, I have a few volunteers that are growing—maybe not thriving, but growing—in what looks to me like about a teaspoon of dirt that is probably very acidic. I will definitely be saving those hardy seeds for next year.
One of the most interesting things about sunflowers is their ability to extract various toxins from the soil and to neutralize toxins and bacteria from water. This process is called phytoremediation, from the Greek phyto, for plant, and the Latin remedium, meaning to restore balance. Other “hyperaccumulators”—those plants with the same ability—include mustard, Alpine pennycress, hemp, and pigweed.
Of course we know about how tasty sunflower seeds are, but the rest of the plant has its uses, too. The leaves can be cattle feed, and the fibrous stems can be used as kindling and in paper production. In some varieties, the oil extracted from the seeds has a higher level of monounsaturated fats than olive oil. Some folks have experimented with making sunflower latex as a non-allergic alternative to rubber.
The Seed Savers Exchange catalog suggests sowing sunflower seeds outside after the last frost; Fedco says the seeds can also be started inside three to four weeks before the last frost, then transplanted. I’ve never grown them inside, but maybe some of the miniature varieties might adapt to a sunny window by the woodstove. The largest plants make great natural screens or windbreaks. Native peoples used sunflowers on the north side of their gardens as the fourth sister—squash, beans, and corn are the other three.