Whether you love to munch organic sunflowers seeds or treat your backyard birds to them, if you have a sunny spot, you can grow your own sunflowers every year and will find real joy in doing so. Our variety of choice is the Tarahumara Sunflower – an heirloom plant with really special qualities and a most interesting conjectured history.
Sunflowers are a Native American food and have been cultivated in the Americas for at least 3000 years. It is believed that the strain of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) being sold as Tarahumara Sunflower Seed were native sunflowers which eventually came to be grown in the care of Mennonite peoples in Canada before making their way south to the Tarahumara people of Northern Mexico where they have now been cultivated for several generations. Like most Native American food crops, good seed has traveled from Peru to Ontario, from Pennsylvania to New Mexico, adapting to new terrains, changing slowly into new strains via natural hybridization and coming to be a staple in widely separated regions of the continents. Sunflowers are truly a gift to us and were so important to the early Incas and Aztecs that they were used to symbolize solar gods in works of religious art. Best of all for today’s home farmers, sunflowers are truly a snap to grow and provide valuable, nutritious food for our families.
What’s Special About Tarahumara Sunflower Seeds?
First of all, the shells are white! This is really striking to the eye at harvest time, and though the seeds of our Tarahumara Sunflowers are somewhat smaller than what you may be used to seeing in commercial and conventional sunflower seeds, their flavor is exceptionally fresh, sweet and tasty.
The leaves are a bright spring green and the stalks reach about 7′-8′ in height on our farm. Each stalk produces a single seed head. The seed heads end up being about 8 inches across, densely packed with seeds. These are smaller flowers than those mammoth disks you may think of when you envision edible sunflower seed plants. They look a bit more like the ornamental hybrids (which, frankly, I find a less-than-great development away from the real sunflowers which so generously produce food for humans and birds) and their petals are an exquisite bright gold against the blue summer sky.
I can certainly understand why the Tarahumara people love this variety of sunflowers and it adds to my happiness in growing them when I think of those wonderful mountain people who think nothing of running a hundred miles at a stretch in bare feet. They are very special people and this is a really special crop for the home farmer to grow.
How To Plant And Grow Tarahumara Sunflowers
After the last danger of frost has passed in the spring, find a spot in the garden or on the family farm with good sunlight. At least 3/4 of a day of sunlight is optimal for their growth. Hoe up the earth to soften it and work in some organic compost. Remember, you are going to be eating these seeds so do not use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or anything else artificial or toxic in your garden or on your farm. It is not necessary to do this if you are taking good care of your land and by growing your food organically, you can be sure you are serving up health and not sickness to yourself and your family.
Make a little hill of earth and poke three holes in it – the depth of the second joint of a woman’s finger or about 1 inch – and put a seed in each hole. Because not all the seeds will sprout in most cases, you are planting 3 to ensure that at least one sunflower comes up in each hill. This is the teaching of the Hidatsa Indians as described in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, one of the finest books ever published on the subject of Native American farming. Make your hills about 1 foot apart. Cover over the seeds and water thoroughly.
In about 1-2 weeks you should see lovely green sprouts coming up. One of the super things about Tarahumara Sunflowers is that, unlike some varieties, they are not water hogs. They are considered fairly drought tolerant. Keep their hills evenly moist until they sprout and are a couple inches tall. Then, you can water less. I would say that once the plants are established, we water ours every few weeks during the heat of summer in Northern California and once the petals fall, we stop watering all together to let the seeds dry.
Tarahumara Sunflowers have slender stalks but should need no staking unless you live in a really windy place. They really take care of themselves if you have provided good soil and good sun. How nice!
When To Harvest Tarahumara Sunflowers
I find it a little confusing that the seed packets I’ve seen for Tarahumara Sunflowers give a days-to-maturity estimate of 85-100 days. I think this is intended to describe when the plants are in bloom, not when they are ready for harvest. In our experience, if you plant your sunflowers in early-mid April, they will be ready for harvest in late September or early October. This is more like 175 days or something between 5-6 months from sowing time to harvest time.
You will know when your sunflower seeds are ready to harvest when all the petals have dropped, the heads are hanging forward and the backs of the heads have turned yellowish. Simply cut off each head with a few inches of stem.
Some people find that they don’t get to reap what they sow when it comes to sunflowers because their feathered friends come early to the feast and quickly clean the seed heads out. It is good to plant extra so that you can help support our dwindling wild bird populations, but you can also reserve as many heads as your family needs by loosely tying a piece of bird netting over each head once the petals have fallen. This will keep the seeds safe for you.
How To Dry The Sunflower Seeds After Harvest
This is very easy. The method described in Buffalo Bird Woman involved setting the sunflowers face-down on the roof of the house for 4 days and nights, unprotected in any way. If a storm was coming, they would be brought inside, but otherwise they were just left out to dry a bit. Unfortunately, our roofs have toxic chemicals on them in most parts of the country and drying our seed on the ground was out because we get heavy sea mists and dew on the grass here. My method involves setting all the heads face down on a wood table in front of a window I keep open during all hours except for when our family is asleep. Within a week, the heads are nice and dry and ready to thresh.
How To Thresh The Sunflower Seeds
If you are dealing with a really large harvest, you may need to do this outside, beating the heads with a stick and using winnowing baskets to separate the seeds from the chaff. Our farm and family is small and the threshing can be done more simply. My husband and I sit down at either end of a cookie sheet. I take each sunflower seed head and bend it backward to loosen the seed and then use my fingers to push the seeds from their bed in the seed head, onto the cookie sheet. There, my husband works to separate the beautiful white seeds from the golden brown husks and other chaff that falls as I loosen the seed. We gather up the ‘debris’ to be added to the compost pile. Once the heads have all been threshed, we pick through all the seeds a second time, removing anything that shouldn’t be there and making sure there are no moldy seeds or anything unwanted. Each head yields about 1/2 cup of seed or more and your finished seeds will look like this:
How To Roast And Store The Sunflower Seeds
Raw sunflower seeds are exceptionally good and can be eaten out of hand. If you’re only familiar with pre-cracked sunflower seeds, the way you crack a sunflower seed’s shell is to place it sideways between your top and bottom front teeth. Come down lightly with your teeth and the shell will pop open so you can pry out the seed meat. That’s how the birds do it, too! Raw sunflower seeds are a wonderful addition to salads, granola, trail mix, baked goods and can even be blended up into sunflower seed butter – like peanut butter but with a really different flavor.
Roasted sunflower seeds are another satisfying snack. Gentle toasting brings out their nuttiness but it’s really important not to over-toast them and this can happen in the blink of an eye if you get distracted. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Spread sunflower seeds (in their shells) on a baking sheet. Toast for about 5 minutes. Take them out and sample one. The shells should still be white. Are the grey seeds inside turning just barely golden? If so, they are done. If not, put them back in for a couple more minutes and sample again. If your seeds turn brown or black, they are burnt and should be thrown in the compost pile. Eating burnt seeds is bad for your health. This is why it is so important to devote seed-roasting time solely to that task so that you can pull the seeds out of the oven at just the right moment. You can sprinkle them with a little salt if you like.
Whether raw or roasted, in the shell or out of the shell, sunflower seeds store best if refrigerated. I’m a big fan of the luxury of refrigeration for all seeds and nuts as this cuts down the chance of the harvest going rancid. Eating rancid seeds and nuts is even worse for you than eating burnt ones. I like to store my sunflower seeds in glass mason jars in the fridge. Roasted seeds should be eaten within a couple of months if kept refrigerated. Raw ones will keep much longer. Make sure your jars and lids are utterly clean and utterly dry. Moisture can cause the seeds to rot. If you ever discover that your seeds taste off, bitter or strange, they have gone rancid and should be put in the compost pile – not eaten.
The Nutritional Gifts Of Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower Seeds are a wonderful source of protein, vitamins E, B1 and B5, zinc, magnesium, fiber and healthy fats. These are things that scientists tell us, but I rely more on the wisdom of thousands of years of my American Indian ancestors growing sunflowers as a healthful and satisfying staple crop. It’s good to understand both ways of looking at the foods we eat, but I will always trust long tradition over modern scientific data when it comes to staple household foods for my family.
One fact you need to know: the nutritious content of any crop you grow is largely dependent on the care you give to the plants. Good, organic soil and traditional, chemical-free farming methods will produce more nutritious foods than the chemically-dependent agribusiness tactics of trying to substitute lab chemicals for time-honored growing practices. Numerous studies have proven this, no matter what the FDA may say about all foods being the same, no matter how they are grown. Take care of the land and the plants that grow on it will take care of your needs.
Don’t forget to save some of the seed you harvest for next year’s planting! Store in a dry, dark place until next spring and honor your Tarahumara Sunflowers of this year by ensuring that their descendants can grow again next year. This is why it is so important to plant heirloom seed wherever you can. The Tarahumara Sunflower is an heirloom plant and, unlike commercial hybrids or the wicked scandal of genetically modified seeds, the seeds you harvest from heirloom plants will produce more of the same plants next year. Saving seeds is a powerful way to keep heritage crops alive and to improve the self-sufficiency of your family farm.
What Else Can You Do With Tarahumara Sunflowers?
On our farm, our plants are our friends. We spend time with them every day, watching them grow, singing to them, asking them to reach for the sky, thanking them for providing us with such delicious, healthy food. I see proofs of the loving element of life on earth in the fact that I can plant just 1 sunflower seed and come away with my cup half-full of them. Noticing this makes me feel loved by this world and helps me to see how the plants take care not only of me, but of so many other kinds of animals. We treat our plants with the respect we sense they merit, and their final resting place is in our compost pile, where the husks of their spirits can slowly feed the future. It keeps them within the circle of life and I sense that they appreciate this consideration.
While I am so joyful at harvest time, I confess I feel sad seeing crops end their growing phase and sometimes I like to prolong my celebration of them by beautifying my home with them before they eventually make their way to the compost pile. Pictured here is a little harvest decoration I made of a stalk and ear of our corn, a dried Tarahumara Sunflower seed head and a remnant of orange fabric. It’s just a simple thing, showing that I am glad that fall is here and that I appreciate my plants and this is a nice way to keep home good and cozy in a natural, pleasant way. You could find other nice ways to use your finished sunflowers in dried arrangements, wreaths and special touches that bring warmth to the house and celebrate the harvest. My mother told me she recently saw a craft store selling miniature bales of hay for $10 each. Take a look around your farm and you will see that ‘designer home decor’ for fall is free for the taking and feels a lot more personal because you grew it yourself.
In addition to decorating with and composting the finished sunflower plants, fresh sunflower petals can be eaten in salads or used to make a lovely yellow watercolor paint or a dye for fabric. Seed can be collected and used to fill birdfeeders with the highest quality, organic birdseed you could possibly acquire.
While they are growing, Tarahumara Sunflowers create a living screen, providing shade and privacy on the homestead. Eat your lunch outdoors at their feet. They draw honeybees and other vital insects to the farm and they add great beauty to the landscape. They can be interplanted with other food crops or with flowers and their presence in your garden connects you with thousands of years of American history. A nutritional powerhouse and a joy to grow – sunflowers deserve a place of honor on our family farms. We really appreciate them, and would love to hear any sunflower stories, tips or recipes you’d like to share. We value your knowledge.