Monika Maeckle

Sunflowers have been called the official flower of Southtown, as so many neighbors plant the big-faced bloomers in the front yards of their urban gardens, almost as a rite of spring and in time to bloom for Fiesta. The large, showy flowers are likely hanging their heads by now.  The Asteracae family, which boasts more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 species, lets you know when seeds are ready by dropping its head and turning brown on its backside.

Monarch butterfly on Mammoth Sunflower
Mammoth Sunflower seed head provides dozens of nectaring possibilities for a Monarch butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What’s so great about these easy-to-grow stunners is their amazing generosity.  Depending on the species you choose (I prefer the nonnative Mammoth Sunflower),  a single seed begets hundreds of tiny florets on the head, or capitulum, of the plant.  Yes, that’s correct.  EACH of those fluffy yellow growths that appear on the flower above are individual flowers.

For butterflies and bees, this represents a nectar cafeteria.  They can land in one spot and conveniently slurp on serial nectar straws without even changing position.  But wait, this flower just keeps on giving.  Each flower later turns into a seed that birds and people seek and crave.

Sunflower head
Mammoth Sunflower head florets turn into seeds. Birds–and people–love them as snacks. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

I like to start Mammoth Sunflower seeds inside in January and transplant them outside in March.  By May, the stalky giants can reach 12 feet tall, their broad, foot-wide faces perching in the front yard like soldiers offering a welcome salute.  They lose their perky dispositions in June, as their heads drop and seeds form in place of the flowers.  All this for a $1.29 a pack and a regular drink of water.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest.
Dried sunflower head ready for harvest. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

If their massive heads, ample flowers and prodigious seeds don’t convince you of their worth, how about heliotropism?  Sunflowers exhibit the endearing botanical trait of tracking the sun.  Their happy flowers faces literally turn toward the sun as it moves across the sky.  They drop their heads at the end of the day as the sun sets, and aptly, at the end of their life.

Scrape sunflower seeds from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

Once the flowers go to seed, you can leave them in place on the hung heads and birds will perch on the stalks and help themselves.  As the seeds dry, they disburse to the ground, where fowl, squirrels and other critters gather them for a handy protein pop.  One tablespoon of sunflower seeds contains 4.5 grams of protein.

It’s also fun to harvest the seeds yourself for your own trail mix, to fill your bird feeder, or to plant next year.   Seven Mammoth Sunflowers I planted in my front yard this spring yielded 1.25 pounds of seed.

Common sunflowers on the San Antonio Mission Reach were prolific this year. Photo by Robert Rivard

The Mammoth Sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, but Texas has its own wonderful natives.  The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annus, may be the most common and provides prime habitat for dove and quail.   Their gangly growth habit often doesn’t fit into our home garden landscape plans, but the San Antonio Mission Reach has given the hardy, brown-centered bloomer a worthy showcase this year with well-timed rains.  Birds and butterflies have noticed and abound.   Also present: Maximilian Sunflower, Helianthus maximilianis, which has a more vertical growth habit and yellow centers.

Here’s how to harvest sunflower seeds:

1.  Wait for the heads to drop, all the sunflower petals have fallen off,  and the backside of the sunflower has turned yellow or even brown.

2. Cut about a foot of stalk off the top.

3. Scrape the seeds out with a spoon or butter knife, as shown in the video above, OR if you’re more patient,

Put a net or brown paper bag over the flower head and wait for the seeds to drop on their own.

4.  Air dry for future use.

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San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...