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Helianthus annuus - L.                
Common Name Sunflower, Common sunflower
Family Asteraceae or Compositae
USDA hardiness 6-9
Known Hazards The growing plant can accumulate nitrates, especially when fed on artificial fertilizers[76]. The pollen or plant extracts may cause allergic reactions[222].
Habitats Open dry or moderately moist soils on the plains[60].
Range Western N. America. An occasional garden escape in Britain.
Edibility Rating  
Medicinal Rating  
Fully Hardy Well drained soil Moist Soil Semi-shade Full sun

Bloom Color: Orange, Red, Yellow. Main Bloom Time: Early fall, Late summer, Mid summer. Form: Upright or erect.

Physical Characteristics       
 icon of manicon of flower
Helianthus annuus is a ANNUAL growing to 3 m (9ft) by 0.3 m (1ft in) at a fast rate.
It is hardy to zone (UK) 7 and is not frost tender. It is in flower from Jul to September, and the seeds ripen from Sep to October. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Bees, flies.The plant is not self-fertile.
It is noted for attracting wildlife.
Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and prefers well-drained soil. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers dry or moist soil and can tolerate drought.

Helianthus annuus Sunflower, Common sunflower

Helianthus annuus Sunflower, Common sunflower
 Cultivated Beds;
Edible Uses                                         
Edible Parts: Flowers;  Oil;  Seed;  Stem.
Edible Uses: Coffee;  Oil.

Seed - raw or cooked[4, 14, 94, 101, 183]. A delicious nut-like flavour, but very fiddly to extract due to the small size of the seed. Commercially there are machines designed to do this. Rich in fats, the seed can be ground into a powder[95], made into sunflower butter or used to make seed yoghurt. When mixed with cereal flours, it makes a nutritious bread[244]. Cultivars with up to 50% oil have been developed in Russia[218]. The oil contains between 44 - 72% linoleic acid[218]. The germinated seed is said to be best for seed yoghurt, it is blended with water and left to ferment[183]. The sprouted seed can be eaten raw[183]. A nutritional analysis of the seed is available[218]. Young flower buds - steamed and served like globe artichokes[2, 85, 101, 117, 183]. A mild and pleasant enough flavour, but rather fiddly[K]. Average yields range from 900 - 1,575 kg/ha of seed, however yields of over 3,375 kg/ha have been reported[269]. A high quality edible semi-drying oil is obtained from the seed[4]. It is low in cholesterol[244], and is said to be equal in quality to olive oil[4]. Used in salads, margarines, or in cooking[2, 34, 46, 57, 94, 95, 183, 269]. The roasted seed is a coffee and drinking chocolate substitute[4, 7, 100, 102]. Another report says the roasted hulls are used[183]. The leaf petioles are boiled and mixed in with other foodstuffs[7].
Figures in grams (g) or miligrams (mg) per 100g of food.
Seed (Fresh weight)
  • 560 Calories per 100g
  • Water : 4.8%
  • Protein: 24g; Fat: 47.3g; Carbohydrate: 19.4g; Fibre: 3.8g; Ash: 4g;
  • Minerals - Calcium: 120mg; Phosphorus: 837mg; Iron: 7.1mg; Magnesium: 0mg; Sodium: 30mg; Potassium: 920mg; Zinc: 0mg;
  • Vitamins - A: 30mg; Thiamine (B1): 1.96mg; Riboflavin (B2): 0.23mg; Niacin: 5.4mg; B6: 0mg; C: 0mg;
  • Reference: [ ]
  • Notes:
Medicinal Uses

Plants For A Future can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Antipsoriatic;  Antirheumatic;  Diuretic;  Expectorant;  Febrifuge;  Stomachic.

A tea made from the leaves is astringent, diuretic and expectorant, it is used in the treatment of high fevers[222]. The crushed leaves are used as a poultice on sores, swellings, snakebites and spider bites[222, 257]. The leaves are harvested as the plant comes into flower and are dried for later use[238]. A tea made from the flowers is used in the treatment of malaria and lung ailments[222, 257]. The flowering head and seeds are febrifuge, nutritive and stomachic[7]. The seed is also considered to be diuretic and expectorant[4, 218, 222]. It has been used with success in the treatment of many pulmonary complaints[4]. A decoction of the roots has been used as a warm wash on rheumatic aches and pains[257].
Other Uses
Blotting paper;  Dye;  Fibre;  Fuel;  Green manure;  Herbicide;  Kindling;  Microscope;  Oil;  Paper.

An edible semi-drying oil is obtained from the seed. Some varieties contain up to 45% oil[61]. The oil is also used, often mixed with a drying oil such as linseed (Linum usitatissimum) to make soap, candles, varnishes, paint etc, as well as for lighting. The oil is said to be unrivalled as a lubricant[4, 21, 34, 46, 100, 269]. A blotting paper is made from the seed receptacles[2, 4, 101, 117]. A high quality writing paper is made from the inner stalk[4, 14, 100, 101]. The pith of the stems is one of the lightest substances known, having a specific gravity of 0.028[4]. It has a wide range of applications, being used for purposes such as making life-saving appliances and slides for microscopes[4, 46, 61]. The dried stems make an excellent fuel, the ash is rich in potassium[4]. Both the dried stems and the empty seed receptacles are an excellent kindling[4]. A fibre from the stem is used to make paper[4] and a fine quality cloth[1, 94, 101]. A yellow dye is obtained from the flowers[4, 14, 94, 95]. A purple-black dye is obtained from the seed of certain varieties that were grown by the Hopi Indians of S.W. North America[117, 169]. Sunflowers can be grown as a spring-sown green manure, they produce a good bulk of material[87]. Root secretions from the plant can inhibit the growth of nearby plants[201].
Cultivation details                                         
Landscape Uses:Border, Container, Foundation, Massing, Seashore, Specimen. An easily grown plant, it succeeds in most soils[1, 34, 117], including poor soils provided they are deep and well-drained[269], but it grows best in a deep rich soil[1, 200]. Plants are intolerant of acid or waterlogged conditions[269]. Especially when grown for its edible seed, the plant prefers a sunny position[1, 34, 117, 269] though it also tolerates light shade[1]. Requires a neutral or preferably calcareous soil[200]. As sunflowers have highly efficient root systems, they can be grown in areas which are too dry for many other crops[269]. Established plants are quite drought-resistant except during flowering[117, 269]. The sunflower tolerates an annual precipitation of 20 - 400cm, an average annual temperature in the range of 6 - 28°C and a pH in the range of 4.5 - 8.7[269]. The young growth is extremely attractive to slugs, plants can be totally destroyed by them[K]. Members of this genus are rarely if ever troubled by browsing deer or rabbits[233]. The sunflower is a very ornamental plant that is widely grown in gardens and is also a major commercial crop for its edible seed and many other uses[1, 4]. It grows well in Britain, but it does not ripen its seed reliably in this country and so is not suitable for commercial cultivation at the present[K]. It is the state flower of Kansas[85]. Three distinct groups of sunflowers are cultivated:- Giant types grow from 1.8 - 4.2 metres tall with flower heads 30 - 50cm in diameter. The seeds are large, white or gray in colour, sometimes with black stripes, and are the best for culinary purposes, though the oil content is lower than for other types. 'Grey Stripe', 'Hopi Black Dye', 'Mammoth Russian' and 'Sundak' are examples of this type[183, 200, 269]. Semi-dwarf types grow from 1.3 - 1.8 m tall, are early maturing and have heads 17 - 23 cm diameter. The seeds are smaller, black, gray or striped, the oil content is also higher. Examples include 'Pole Star' and 'Jupiter' Dwarf types grow from 0.6 - 1.4 m tall, are early maturing and have heads 14 - 16 cm in diameter[269. The seeds are small but the oil content is the highest. Examples include 'Advance' and 'Sunset'[269]. Some forms are being bred for greater cold tolerance and should be more reliable in Britain[117, 141]. Plants tend to grow better in the south and south-west of England[4]. Most forms require a four month frost-free growing season[117], though some Russian cultivars can mature a crop in 70 days[269]. When plants are grown in cooler latitudes the seed contains higher proportions of polyunsaturated fatty oils[117]. The plant has a strong taproot that can penetrate the soil to depth of 3 metres, it also has a large lateral spread of surface roots[269]. Sunflowers grow badly with potatoes but they do well with cucumbers and corn[18, 20, 201]. A very greedy and vigorous plant, it can inhibit the growth of nearby plants[20]. Plants tend to impoverish the soil if they are grown too often in the same place[117]. A good bee plant, providing large quantities of nectar[18, 34, 244]. The flowers attract beneficial insects such as lacewings and parasitic wasps[238]. These prey on various insect pests, especially aphis[238]. Special Features:Attracts birds, Attractive foliage, North American native, Edible, Naturalizing, Wetlands plant, Attracts butterflies, Suitable for cut flowers, Suitable for dried flowers.
Seed - sow in mid spring in situ. An earlier start can be made by sowing 2 - 3 seeds per pot in a greenhouse in early spring. Use a fairly rich compost. Thin to the strongest seedling, give them an occasional liquid feed to make sure they do not become nutrient deficient and plant them out in late spring or early summer. Seed, harvested at 12% moisture content and stored, will retain its viability for several years[269].
Related Plants                                         
Latin NameCommon NameEdibility RatingMedicinal Rating
Helianthus doronicoides 20
Helianthus giganteusGiant Sunflower30
Helianthus laetiflorusShowy Sunflower, Cheerful sunflower20
Helianthus lenticularisWild Sunflower30
Helianthus maximilianiiMaximillian Sunflower, Maximillian Daisy30
Helianthus petiolarisPrairie Sunflower21
Helianthus strumosusPaleleaf Woodland Sunflower21
Helianthus tuberosusJerusalem Artichoke41
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Expert comment                                         
Botanical References                                         
Links / References                                         

  [K] Ken Fern Notes from observations, tasting etc at Plants For A Future and on field trips.

[1]F. Chittendon. RHS Dictionary of Plants plus Supplement. 1956
Comprehensive listing of species and how to grow them. Somewhat outdated, it has been replaces in 1992 by a new dictionary (see [200]).
[2]Hedrick. U. P. Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World.
Lots of entries, quite a lot of information in most entries and references.
[4]Grieve. A Modern Herbal.
Not so modern (1930's?) but lots of information, mainly temperate plants.
[7]Chiej. R. Encyclopaedia of Medicinal Plants.
Covers plants growing in Europe. Also gives other interesting information on the plants. Good photographs.
[14]Holtom. J. and Hylton. W. Complete Guide to Herbs.
A good herbal.
[18]Philbrick H. and Gregg R. B. Companion Plants.
Details of beneficial and antagonistic relationships between neighbouring plants.
[20]Riotte. L. Companion Planting for Successful Gardening.
Fairly good.
[21]Lust. J. The Herb Book.
Lots of information tightly crammed into a fairly small book.
[34]Harrison. S. Wallis. M. Masefield. G. The Oxford Book of Food Plants.
Good drawings of some of the more common food plants from around the world. Not much information though.
[46]Uphof. J. C. Th. Dictionary of Economic Plants.
An excellent and very comprehensive guide but it only gives very short descriptions of the uses without any details of how to utilize the plants. Not for the casual reader.
[57]Schery. R. W. Plants for Man.
Fairly readable but not very comprehensive. Deals with plants from around the world.
[60]Hitchcock. C. L. Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest.
A standard flora for Western N. America with lots of information on habitat etc. Five large volumes, it is not for the casual reader.
[61]Usher. G. A Dictionary of Plants Used by Man.
Forget the sexist title, this is one of the best books on the subject. Lists a very extensive range of useful plants from around the world with very brief details of the uses. Not for the casual reader.
[85]Harrington. H. D. Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains.
A superb book. Very readable, it gives the results of the authors experiments with native edible plants.
[87]Woodward. L. Burge. P. Green Manures.
Green manure crops for temperate areas. Quite a lot of information on a number of species.
[94]Sweet. M. Common Edible and Useful Plants of the West.
Useful wild plants in Western N. America. A pocket guide.
[95]Saunders. C. F. Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada.
Useful wild plants of America. A pocket guide.
[100]Polunin. O. Flowers of Europe - A Field Guide.
An excellent and well illustrated pocket guide for those with very large pockets. Also gives some details on plant uses.
[101]Turner. N. J. and Szczawinski. A. Edible Wild Fruits and Nuts of Canada.
A very readable guide to some wild foods of Canada.
[102]Kavasch. B. Native Harvests.
Another guide to the wild foods of America.
[117]Rosengarten. jnr. F. The Book of Edible Nuts.
A very readable and comprehensive guide. Well illustrated.
[141]Carruthers. S. P. (Editor) Alternative Enterprises for Agriculture in the UK.
Some suggested alternative commercial crops for Britain. Readable. Produced by a University study group.
[169]Buchanan. R. A Weavers Garden.
Covers all aspects of growing your own clothes, from fibre plants to dyes.
[183]Facciola. S. Cornucopia - A Source Book of Edible Plants.
Excellent. Contains a very wide range of conventional and unconventional food plants (including tropical) and where they can be obtained (mainly N. American nurseries but also research institutes and a lot of other nurseries from around the world.
[200]Huxley. A. The New RHS Dictionary of Gardening. 1992.
Excellent and very comprehensive, though it contains a number of silly mistakes. Readable yet also very detailed.
[201]Allardice.P. A - Z of Companion Planting.
A well produced and very readable book.
[218]Duke. J. A. and Ayensu. E. S. Medicinal Plants of China
Details of over 1,200 medicinal plants of China and brief details of their uses. Often includes an analysis, or at least a list of constituents. Heavy going if you are not into the subject.
[222]Foster. S. & Duke. J. A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. Eastern and Central N. America.
A concise book dealing with almost 500 species. A line drawing of each plant is included plus colour photographs of about 100 species. Very good as a field guide, it only gives brief details about the plants medicinal properties.
[233]Thomas. G. S. Perennial Garden Plants
A concise guide to a wide range of perennials. Lots of cultivation guides, very little on plant uses.
[238]Bown. D. Encyclopaedia of Herbs and their Uses.
A very well presented and informative book on herbs from around the globe. Plenty in it for both the casual reader and the serious student. Just one main quibble is the silly way of having two separate entries for each plant.
[244]Phillips. R. & Foy. N. Herbs
Deals with all types of herbs including medicinal, culinary, scented and dye plants. Excellent photographs with quite good information on each plant.
[257]Moerman. D. Native American Ethnobotany
Very comprehensive but terse guide to the native uses of plants. Excellent bibliography, fully referenced to each plant, giving a pathway to further information. Not for the casual reader.
[269]Duke. J. Handbook of Energy Crops
Published only on the Internet, excellent information on a wide range of plants.

Readers comment                                         
Elizabeth H.
Dr Ejebe Daniel Fri Feb 22 2008
kindly provide me more details about your references.I really need to have the relevant pages of the Textbooks mentioned for this plant.Thanks
Elizabeth H.
Sid Mon Jul 14 2008
In the Book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth published by Seed Saver Publications the author says: "Immature leaves, flower petals and roots were all cooked as vegetables." She also says "Mature leaves were used as a tobacco subsitute and for animal feed." I don't know myself how accurate that is, but since you didn't mention it I thought I would notify you.
Elizabeth H.
Thu Jan 14 2010
They are such a pretty yellow and their seeds are my favorite snack
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