The official flower of August should be the sunflower. In gardens throughout the Midwest, these big, bold disks of blazing yellow will lift your spirit and bring a smile to your face. Some grow to towering heights – the world record is 25 feet, 5.4 inches, while others are more modest in stature but still bring a special beauty to their surroundings. The flower heads can range from 4 inches across to 12 inches. If you’ve never seen a field full of sunflowers, you need to put that on your bucket list. Just get in your car and plan a road trip through the Dakotas (ranked 1st and 2nd in production), or Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Texas or right here in Minnesota.
Most of the sunflowers here in our yard and gardens were planted by accident. They are the stray seed that got thrown off a feeder or buried by a chipmunk. These randomly scattered seeds seem to prosper far better than any I intentionally put in the ground. They are the true champions, the survivors of various herbivores and excesses of heat, drought or downpours.
A sunflower head gone to seed with an American goldfinch close by.
In the center of the flower, you can often find bumblees and other pollinators slowly moving from one side to the other in search of pollen. Through their efforts the seeds are fertilized and another crop of very important food is produced. The sunflower is native to North America, but it made its way to Europe via Spanish explorers and then spread across the continent, eventually becoming a very important food crop for sunflower oil production in Russia. In the early 1900’s Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of the plant. This altered sunflower seed returned to the U.S. in the late 19th Century and was known as the Mammoth Russian. Its first use was as feed for poultry, but by the 1930s sunflower oil was becoming commercially viable. In the 1940s bird feeding was growing in popularity and so began another reason for farmers to plant these beauties.
Today the type of sunflower grown for birds is called Oilseed. It is smaller than the seeds grown for human consumption but is very high in oil content and has about 20% protein and 30% lipids (oil). The black outer shell protects the inner, white kernel. There are advantages and disadvantages to using either kind, mainly related to the amount of shells that build up beneath a feeder. The shell on the other hand does protect the seed longer from precipitation. If using hulled seeds, it is best to put them in a feeder with a cover of some sort. The important fact to note is that a wide range of birds will eat these seeds, either whole or shelled.