The sunflowers are blooming in South Texas. Our native variety of sunflower, the silver leaf, grows tall, up to twenty feet in height, with thick trunk-like stems. Sunflowers, with their vibrant yellow blooms, have a long and colorful history in the garden.
Native American Indians began to cultivate sunflowers 5,000 years ago. They roasted the oil-rich seeds, ate them raw, or pounded them into flour. Indians used sunflowers as medicine to treat a long list of ailments, and they made a purple dye from the seeds to paint their skin.
Indians also planted sunflowers as living fences to protect their crops. We adopted this method on our farm and planted a hedgerow of sunflowers to shield our crops from the relentless Gulf winds. This living fence now grows so dense that even deer will not try to break though it to sneak into our gardens.
Silver leaf sunflowers are easy to propagate, but you must collect the seeds now, during the fall, from mature flowers. Silver leaf sunflowers are native to South Texas, but they do not grow well outside of our area, and the seeds are difficult to find commercially.
But you can easily harvest your own seeds by cutting mature well-seeded flower heads from their stalks. To keep the seeds through the winter, store the flower heads in a zip lock bag in the freezer.
In the spring, plant these frozen flower heads into loosened, well-aerated soil. You don’t need to thin or even water your hardy sunflowers; they will grow perfectly well on their own. You can plant a living fence or a small thicket of flowers, whatever is best-suited to your landscape.
In late fall, when the flowers fade, you can weave the sturdy sunflower stalks into trellises for your winter peas, or burn the stalks to make potassium-rich ash to use as a soil amendment.
Sunflowers attract birds, butterflies, and bees to your landscape. Much of our fall honey in South Texas actually comes from the pollen of sunflowers. And best of all, sunflowers bring their golden blooms in late summer, when there is not much color in the garden.
Silver leaf sunflowers are a useful, beautiful, and age-old companion to your vegetables, and these flowers will happily make themselves at home in your garden.