The Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) provides dramatic and cheerful flair to a vegetable garden. They also serve a very practical purpose. Sunflowers attract pollinators, provide shade, act as a living trellis and can even assist in the cleaning of contaminated soil. Sunflowers make a surprising and flavourful addition to your culinary creations and are a true must have for every garden.
Pollination and Beneficial Insects
Sunflowers lure beneficial insects into your vegetable garden, improving the pollination of your fruits and vegetables. They provide a healthy source of nectar and pollen for the bees. Be sure to avoid the use of chemicals in the garden so that you do not harm the beneficial insects.
The sturdy stalks of the sunflower act as a natural trellis which is perfect for cucumbers, beans, peas cucumbers, squash. You might need to train your plants to climb the stalk initially but they will soon wrap around the stalk and climb on their own. In the spring when you plant your sunflower seeds be sure to plan out the spacing, pairing a cucumber plant with a sunflower. Covering the freshly planted seeds with row cover or plastic cups will save your seeds from being stolen by hungry birds & critters.
Shade and Companion Planting
The sunflowers cast a shadow where they grow. This shade provides and excellent opportunity to plant and grow lettuce and spinach and other plants that will bolt in the full heat of the sun. There is ample room beneath the sunflower canopy for companion planting. Just be careful that you don’t plant the sunflowers in an area that will cast shade on your sun loving plants (such as tomatoes.)
The Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), also called sunroot is a species of sunflower native to eastern North America. It is cultivated for the tuber which is treated as a root vegetable. The Jerusalem artichoke is a perennial edible, and very easy to grow. Plant the tubers in the early spring and harvest what you need after the last frost. The Jerusalem artichoke are an invasive species and will spread through your garden so be mindful of where you plant them. They develop pretty sunflowers in August but unlike all other sunflowers this species does not provide seed/oil.
Other useful Sunflower information
Sunflowers along with hemp are sometimes used in phytoremediation, which is the removal of toxic metals, pesticides, solvents and gasoline from the ground using hyperaccumalative plants including sunflowers. They remove the toxins by hytoextraction. They draw the pollutants up from the ground into their roots, stems and leaves and store them there. The entire plant is then toxic and needs to be disposed of safely. You can read more about phytoremediation here and here.
Sunflowers are a good source of Vitamin E, Copper and B1. You can find a complete list of nutrients here.
Sunflower Culinary Uses
Sunflowers are known for their delicious seeds and also for cooking oil. Their stem is also strong enough the make paper with. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that you can eat the entire sunflower; stalk, leaves, petals & seeds. The leaves can be treated like any green, chopped in salads or steamed. The petals make an attractive and nutritious addition to salads. You can chop and peel the stalk and eat it like you would celery. Take care to ensure that the sunflowers that you are eating come from healthy, organic & chemical free soil.