Bright and cheerful sunflowers can bring a smile to anyone's face, writes Justin Newcombe.
More years ago than I care to remember I managed to transform the unassuming, slightly grungy, semi-industrial back garden of my then student flat (it was flanked on two sides by imposing concrete walls from industrial properties), into a riot of surprise and colour, all achieved with just one packet of sunflower seeds. I was youthful, and at that particular time immersed in some kind of self-inflicted penance, but sunflowers have remained for me both a source of salvation and wonderment, a true sign of summer's potency.
My own personal reminiscences aside, the imposing nature of a stand of sunflowers can bring a smile to the most inhibited of people. It's not just people who like them either, sunflowers are magnets for bees, birds and insects, providing, as they do an abundance of food.
The wild sunflower is native to North America. Native Americans were wise to its nutritional qualities and cultivated the sunflower, domesticating it into a single-headed plant with a variety of seed colours. The dye was used on textiles and for paint. The oil was extracted for cooking and cosmetic use and the dried stalks were used as a building material: not an ounce of waste. The Spanish introduced the sunflower to Europe around the year 1500 where it became widespread as an ornamental plant. For the next 200-odd years a few entrepreneurial souls played with its oil production possibilities.
It was Russia's Peter the Great who really got things cracking, endorsing the commercial growth of sunflowers for their oil.
Sunflowers gained enormous popularity in Russia as one of the few oil foods sanctioned by the Orthodox Church as being admissible during Lent. By the 19th century Russian farmers were growing more than two million acres for both oil extraction and seed consumption.
The authorities invested heavily in research to increase yields and oil content, the result of which was some very large sunflowers.
To this day Giant Russian sunflowers are known for their huge heads and very tall stalks. Eventually, probably via Russian immigrants, sunflowers made their way back to North America where they were increasingly hybridised and commercialised.
Growing your own sunflowers is a fun and easy affair. Seeds can be direct-sown or raised in trays. I have done both successfully, although some people claim that the seedlings don't like being transplanted. Small plants will be victimised by slugs, snails and birds so provide some protection until they get established.
Once they get going, sunflowers are pretty hardy - just make sure they get enough water and of course sun. They can be sown, with care, right through early summer.
Sunflowers are great to get kids involved in gardening. Once they've seen them bud up and flower there is the spectacle of birdwatching as the heads give way to seed.
Saving the seed for human consumption is another option although hulling methods on a non-commercial scale have eluded me. One technique I came across was called the "chew and spit" method where you put the whole thing in your mouth and do your own hulling; I guess it might be quite a good substitute if you were trying to give up smoking.
You could try roasting them or buying some special device, or you could just feed them to the birds who love them whole and untouched.By Justin Newcombe Email Justin