It’s the Year of the Sunflower: 2021

Year of the Sunflower

Easy to grow, healthy to eat and uplifting to see, sunflowers enhance our life. After the challenges of 2020, The National Garden Bureau has named 2021 “The Year of the Sunflower.” It’s almost impossible not to smile, relax and think of sunny days when you’re in their presence.

In fact, sunflowers earned their common name because their faces follow the sun from east to west each day.

These engaging flowers are so easy to start from seed that transplants aren’t needed. Purchase a packet of seeds, select a spot with full sun (6-8 hours daily) and plant directly in the ground about an inch deep and a foot apart (the flowers grow tall and narrow). New plants need regular watering for a couple of weeks, but since sunflowers are drought tolerant, you can back off the watering as they grow.

Good news! It’s not too late in the gardening season to add sunflowers to your landscape. Depending on the variety you’ll have bloom by July or August (50-90 days).

Check out this amazing time lapse video that captures the life cycle of one sunflower.

Selecting Sunflowers

Here in southeast Texas, our native sunflowers attract a host of pollinating insects, birds, and small mammals. Many native bees favor sunflower pollen for its protein and feed it to their developing larvae. Pro Tip: before purchasing sunflower seeds, check the information on the packet to be certain the variety is open-pollinated. These flowers will produce abundant pollen while hybrid sunflowers have little to none. Two easy-to-find native varieties are Maximmilian and the annual sunflower (Helianthus annus).

Birds make great use of the seeds high oil content for energy production and body maintenance. Let the plants stand through the winter for an ideal bird feeder! Your garden will be filled with finches, pine siskins, chickadees and nuthatches. Dried sunflower stalks and leaves provide cover and food for many small mammals.

Of course, birds aren’t the only ones who love a good sunflower seed. Try one of these varieties if you’re interested in harvesting them for your dinner table: Mammoth Greystripe, Black Russian, Lemon Queen or Great White Seeded. Grow-your-own sunflowers are a fun and tasty way to add nutrients and antioxidants to your diet. The National Sunflower Association is a great source for nutritious sunflower recipes.

Celebrate “The Year of the Sunflower” and give your landscape a happy focal point this summer. The benefits abound for you and the environment!


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Grow a native American vegetable and treat your landscape and palate alike

Helianthus tuberosus

Cultivated for centuries prior to the arrival of European explorers and settlers, our country’s only native vegetable is also a Texas native sunflower. The “jerusalem artichoke” or “sunchoke” is the enlarged underground stem of helianthus tuberosus, a type of sunflower in the aster family with edible tuberous roots. While commonly regarded as native vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, corn and peppers all originated either in Central or South America.

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Today, we take the food on our plate for granted, but the History of Vegetables  is a fascinating study.

The common name “Jerusalem artichoke” is likely a corruption of the Italian girasole (turning toward the sun) which is a trait shared by all sunflowers. In more recent years, the edible tubers of helianthus tuberosus have become known as “sunchokes”.

Sunchokes have a delicious, sweet nutty taste.  As an extra bonus, these tubers are nutritious and an excellent source of iron, potassium and fiber.

The original distribution of this native Texas sunflower is unclear because the plant was transported to many different geographic locations for cultivation by Native Americans.  Today, helianthus tuberosus can be found along the edges of wooded areas, in former fields and along roadsides.

Helianthus tuberosus

This showy sunflower is also sometimes grown simply for its bright yellow blooms and tall, fast growing stems. Broad, thick leaves and rough hairy stems add to the visual attractiveness of this native plant.

Blooming in late summer and early fall, helianthus tuberosus requires full sun to part shade. A tough and versatile plant, this sunflower will grow in moist or dry soil and tolerates drought, heat and frigid temperatures. Because of these qualities, it’s very easy to grow. Helianthus tuberosus is extremely useful in the garden where it can quickly become a temporary summer screen, a stunning background for a native plant border or the sunny edge of a natural wooded area.

Nectar source for butterflies

This particular sunflower is beneficial for both insects and wildlife. The large yellow flowers offer nectar for butterflies, pollen for bees while also supporting many predatory and parasitoid wasps, flies and beetles. In fall, the seed heads attract birds while the large plants offer cover for small wildlife.

Beekeepers have noted that helianthus tuberosus  is an excellent honey plant resulting in a clear amber product when harvested.

Very little is known about pests or diseases which damage this plant. It appears to be quite resistant, which contributes to its easy to grow nature. In the southeast Texas climate, the optimum planting time is early spring with the main harvest in fall. Since helianthus tuberosus is a perennial plant, once started in the garden, it’ll return each spring from tubers left in the soil.

Growing helianthus tuberosus in your garden or landscape offers new opportunities for applying culinary skills as well as providing beauty, food for pollinators and cover for wildlife.

The edible tubers or sunchokes can be harvested beginning within two or three weeks after the flowers fade. Harvesting can continue after the first freeze damages the stems and leaves of the plant. Each plant will produce approximately 2-5 pounds of sunchokes. When left in the ground after the first frost, the tubers become sweeter and crispier. To preserve the freshness, store sunchokes in a zip top plastic bag in the refrigerator. This strategy preserves the tuber’s natural moisture.

While sunchokes are frequently used in cooking as a potato substitute, unlike potatoes, they can be used raw and add a nutritious crunch to salads. Sunchokes are also an excellent vegetable for pickling.

If you like to get even more creative in the kitchen, try Pan-Roasted Sunchokes and Artichoke Hearts with Lemon-Herb Butter.

Looks and sounds delish.

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For more information on the nutritional value of various foods, check out this nutrition guide, by the USDA.