Garden Variety: Protect your sunflower seed harvest from wildlife

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Sunflowers add a splash of late-summer color to gardens and landscapes, but they are more than just pretty flowers. The seeds produced by these plants are a tasty treat for people and wildlife. Take steps now and in the coming weeks, as the flowers fade, to preserve the seeds for harvest this fall.

Sunflower seeds may be consumed raw or roasted, added to a variety of dishes and baked goods, or processed into oil or sunflower butter. Birds and squirrels also enjoy them. Harvested seeds can also be saved to plant next year’s crop.

Sunflower seeds will mature on their own in the garden or field, but birds can quickly strip heads of their seeds when the seeds are mature enough to pick. To prevent birds from eating all the sunflower seeds this fall (even if you just want to save them for the birds this winter), put cheesecloth, fine netting or brown paper sacks over the fading flowers after the petals turn brown. Secure the covering with a tie or string around the stem beneath the flower head.

What most people refer to as the flower on a sunflower is technically a composite of thousands of tiny flowers. That is why it is best referred to as a head instead of a flower. The brightly colored petals around the outside of the mass of tiny flowers are rays. Sometimes the very center of the head has florets. Each of the tiny flowers that make up the main part of the head will mature into a seed.

As seeds mature, flower heads turn down to look at the ground, florets (if present) shrivel, and the back of the head turns from pale green to lemon yellow. Seeds may begin to fall out of the head on their own.

If heads are covered as described above, leave them on the plant until seeds are fully ripe for best flavor. If left uncovered, many of the seeds will fall out onto ground or be consumed by birds. If plants are exceptionally tall or there are other reasons not to cover the heads, go ahead and harvest at this point. Put heads in individual brown paper sacks to finish maturing. Or hang them upside down and cover as described above to collect the seeds as they dry and fall out of the heads.

Seeds that fail to fall out on their own can easily be brushed or shaken out of the heads once the heads and seeds are mature and dry. Avoid forcing the seeds out of the heads.

There are many recipes and tutorials available for roasting sunflower seeds, pressing seeds for sunflower oil, and making sunflower butter. Raw and roasted seeds can also be used in granola mixes, baked goods, salads, pesto, and other dishes.

There are about 70 species of sunflowers and cultivars within the species that offer variations in color, size of flower head, plant height, and palatability. For human consumption, sunflower cultivars with large flower heads and large seeds are generally preferred.

The most common sunflower in the natural landscape and the official state flower of Kansas is the wild native sunflower (Helianthus annuus). Other varieties may produce larger or smaller flower heads. The flower heads turn with the sun and follow it throughout the day.

Native Americans used native sunflowers for food and cultivated the plant. Seeds are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins E and B, and folic acid.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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