The Natural History of Sunflowers and A Sunflower Seed Cookie Recipe
Enjoy The Delights of Sunflowers
Today's guest post is from Anne Littlewolf, our very own helpful author (when I give her enough lead time), with a touch of tag teaming from yours truly!
With wealth untold in my pocket, I'd gotten permission from Mom to go play with the rest of the kids. We had bikes, we had energy, we had imagination, and with the vast sum of 25 whole cents in my pocket, the world was mine! Dashing across the street to the little Mom & Pop grocery store, I roamed up and down the aisles, trying to choose between a Chunky candy bar, a candy necklace or at least a handful of Pixie Stix, but when it all came down to a final choice, a ten-cent bag of sunflower seeds (roasted and salted in the shell!) won out. I'd learned the fine art of cracking them, extracting the seed and spitting out the shell in one swift move, never once losing a single pedal stroke on my bike. Oh, the things that give you status when you're ten!!
It was, as we later learned, a wonderful snack choice. Sunflowers are amazing plants, they're the type of flower that always makes you smile whether they're in the yard, on an apron, on wallpaper or even on a notepad, and they produce some of the best munchies ever. The little seeds that come in the familiar black and white striped shell offer all sorts of benefits, beyond just yummy-ness! Sunflower seeds are used in most countries as a source of cooking oil, while in America we tend to shove them into the snack food category or probably at least as commonly, bird food. I would suggest considering them for human food, and as a great addition for native pollinators and butterflies. The asters that don't make large heads are also an important part of ecosystems, and food for insects, and other native creatures. Let's learn more.
What makes a sunflower a sunflower? They are in the family of Asters, which includes chicory and echinacea. Asters are noted for their composite flowers and heads, which are really multiple flowers in one. There are over 50 species in North America, all native too.
Here's a short, but wonderful video, showing a sunflower blooming. You will see the anthers and stigma of the flowers emerging for pollination:
What makes the sunflower extra nice is the fact that it's ridiculously easy to grow. Kids love to plant sunflower seeds and watch their plants shoot skyward--they can be anywhere from 3 to 15 feet in height--and when the full heads bloom, the fringe of bright yellow petals just naturally make you smile. Help your children dig a small hole, about the depth of your index finger, drop in one or two seeds and water well. Sunflowers prefer a richer soil, not a sandy one, and be sure to plant deeply enough, as they can blow over easily in high winds. They are top-heavy enough you might even want to add a little support by tying them up to a support post. In about 2 weeks, you'll see a sprout and then just keep adding water and sunshine. It's fun to note the position of the flower head and watch how it will follow the course of the sun during the day. As the seeds develop and get heavier and heavier, the head will begin to droop and you can see a wonderful pattern in the seeds. While it looks like there is only one flower blooming, watch closely and you'll see hundreds of tiny flowers blooming to attract bees and other insects. Their good work creates the seeds that we love so much.
It's in those seeds that we find the nutrition of the plant. There's a great deal of science behind growing and harvesting sunflowers. You can learn all you ever wanted to know about sunflower seeds and their physical properties in this paper by R.K. Gupta. Who knew people actually measured spherosity, terminal velocity, and moisture content on these little things?
Sunflowers seeds have been shown to have beneficial effects in health studies, including their phytoestrogens, which have been shown to help with osteoporosis, cancer, menopausal symptoms, and heart disease. They are rich in Omega 3, which is shown to help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease as well. There are also high levels of phytosterols in the seeds, which are a positive form of cholesterol that can help in lowering blood pressure, and reducing "bad" cholesterol. Sunflower seeds have also been shown to help fight migraines, asthma and stress because they have high levels of magnesium, which aids in enervation of our nerves (keeping them relaxed) and the nerve channels open. These tiny seeds are also high in B1,3,6 and vitamin E, which is great for skin and hair. For those of you wishing to lose weight they are a great source of fiber too! Gee, that's a lot of value from a tiny bag of seeds!
If you're growing sunflower seeds, as fall harvest approaches, let the head and stalk begin to dry out, then you can cut the flower to remove the seeds (hint: to deflect squirrels you can tie the end of a pantyhose sock over the head). There's no difficult preparation needed when harvest time comes, just let the plant dry out and shuck the seeds into a jar if you like. Or you can roast them with some onion salt, barbeque flavoring, garlic salt (if you don't want vampires or certain friends coming too close!) or even just plain sea salt. If you want to leave the seeds in the hulls, that's fine, but shelling them is reasonably easy, too. You can grind the seeds gently in a seed mill then put them in a bowl of cold water. The hulls will float to the top for skimming, or if you don't have a seed mill, use a hand mixer and in small spurts toss the seeds about---some will get mashed, but most will simply break away from the hull, then you can float those away too. Add your seeds to trail mix, salads, multi-grained bread dough, bran muffins, as they offer a terrific crunch and flavor to most anything.
However, for a truly wonderful (almost decadent) treat, make some Sunflower Seed Cookies. I warn you now, they're outrageously addictive, yummy, delicious and a wonderful summer treat. They're easy to make and even the kids can help if you watch them closely. I don't remember who shared this recipe with me many years ago, but it's a long-time favorite. It doesn't ship well, as it is a very fragile cookie, so don't plan to send it to friends or relatives, all they'll get will be a pile of crumbs, but you can bet your friends will be begging for the recipe!
SUNFLOWER SEED COOKIES: Oven: 350 degrees
2 cups sugar 1 cup butter 1 cup shortening
3 cups flour 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup roasted, salted (shelled) sunflower seeds 1 cup coconut (optional, but yummy!)
Cream butter, shortening and sugar together. Gradually add flour, vanilla, and soda to make a workable dough (not too soft, not too stiff). Stir in seeds and coconut and mix well. Pinch off a small amount and roll into a ball about 1" in diameter, place on ungreased cookie sheet and flatten with a floured glass bottom. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes. Watch these carefully as they will burn easily and you want them just golden brown, not over-done. Cool them on cookie racks until they set up firmly, then enjoy with iced tea, milk, or just for the outright fun of it! (using a glass with a pretty design on the bottom adds to the attractiveness of your cookies and yes, it does require both butter and shortening, so they are rich)
If you'd like to try sunflower butter making (like peanut butter but better) check out this recipe on "Tessa, the Domestic Diva's" blog.