Edible Wild Plants: Common Sunflower (Helianthus Annuus)

Common Wild Sunflower (Helianthus Annuus)Sunflower (Helianthus Annuus) is an annual plant native to the Americas. It possesses a large inflorescence (flowering head). The sunflower is named after its huge, fiery blooms, whose shape and image is often used to depict the sun. It has a rough, hairy stem, broad, coarsely toothed, rough leaves and circular heads of flowers. The heads consist of many individual flowers which mature into seeds, often in the hundreds, on a receptacle base.

From the Americas, sunflower seeds were brought to Europe in the 16th century, where, along with sunflower oil, they became a widespread cooking ingredient. Leaves of the sunflower can be used as cattle feed, while the stems contain a fiber which may be used in paper production.

Long before the coming of the white man and the exploitation of Sunflower-oil, the American Indians were using the seeds of the larger species of Sunflowers as important sources of food. Slightly parched and ground into flour, they serve in making bread, cakes and rich soups; or the oil, separated by boiling the crushed seeds and skimming the oil from the surface of the water, was used by the Indians, as it is now by the Americans, as table-oil.

Several explorers state that the roasted shells, after the starch has been removed by roasting, crushing and sifting, or the roasted seeds were used in preparing a drink “tasting just like coffee”.

Wild Sunflower Field  (Helianthus Annuus)

In September the fields and roadsides of the Great Plains erupt in a blaze of yellow as the sunflowers and goldenrod’s (also members of the sunflower family) make their presence known to the local pollinating insects.  While many sunflower species may begin blooming in July, they are not as noticeable then as later on when they have grown up and over the surrounding vegetation.  There are eleven species of sunflower recorded from Kansas.   Most of them are perennials.  Only the common sunflower and the Prairie Sunflower, are annuals.

Sunflower Uses - Oil, Bread, Soup, etc.Identification of sunflowers can be very complicated because they frequently hybridize and even within species there is a high degree of variability.  With a little practice, however, the most common species can be readily recognized.

The Common Sunflower has a long history of association with people.   Nearly 3,000 years ago it was domesticated for food production by the Native Americans.  The seeds of the wild type of sunflower are only about 5 mm. long.   It was only through careful selection for the largest size seeds over hundreds of years that the cultivated sunflower was produced. Lewis and Clark made mention in their journals of its usage by the plains Indians.  It was brought back to the Old World by the early European explorers and widely cultivated there also.

Today it is a common alternative crop in the Great Plains and elsewhere for food and oil production.    Next time you munch down on some sunflower seeds, thank the many generations of Native Americans whose careful husbandry gave us this valuable food item.

Edible Parts

  • Seeds
  • Leaves
  • Flowers
  • Stems


The seeds of sunflower can be eaten raw or cooked. Rich in fats, the seed can be ground into a powder, made into sunflower butter or used to make seed yoghurt. When mixed with cereal flours, it makes a nutritious bread.

The germinated seed is said to be best for seed yoghurt, it is blended with water and left to ferment.

The sprouted seed can be eaten raw. A high quality edible semi-drying oil is obtained from the seed. It is low in cholesterol, and is said to be equal in quality to olive oil. It is used in salads, margarine, or in cooking.

The roasted seed is also a coffee and drinking chocolate substitute.

Young flower buds – steamed – can be served like globe artichokes. The leaf stalks can be boiled and mixed in with other foods.

Medicinal Uses

A tea made from the leaves is astringent, diuretic and expectorant, it is used in the treatment of high fevers.

The crushed leaves are used as a poultice on sores, swellings, snakebites and spider bites. The leaves are harvested as the plant comes into flower and are dried for later use.

A tea made from the flowers is used in the treatment of malaria and lung ailments. The flowering head and seeds are febrifuge, nutritive and stomachic. The seed is also considered to be diuretic and expectorant. It has been used with success in the treatment of many pulmonary complaints. A decoction of the roots has been used as a warm wash on rheumatic aches and pains.

American Indians used flower tea for lung ailments, malaria. Leaf tea taken for high fevers; astringent; poultice on snakebites and spider bites. Seeds and leaves said to be diuretic, expectorant.

Other Uses

Blotting paper, dye, fiber, fuel, green manure, herbicide, kindling, paper.

An edible semi-drying oil is obtained from the seed. Some varieties contain up to 45% oil. 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 unrivaled as a lubricant. A blotting paper is made from the seed receptacles. A high quality writing paper is made from the inner stalk. The pith of the stems is one of the lightest substances known, having a specific gravity of 0.028. It has a wide range of applications, being used for purposes such as making life-saving appliances and slides for microscopes. The dried stems make an excellent fuel, the ash is rich in potassium. Both the dried stems and the empty seed receptacles are an excellent kindling. A fiber from the stem is used to make paper and a fine quality cloth.

A yellow dye is obtained from the flowers. A purple-black dye is obtained from the seed of certain varieties that were grown by the Hopi Indians of S.W. North America. Sunflowers can be grown as a spring-sown green manure, they produce a good bulk of material. Root secretions from the plant can inhibit the growth of nearby plants.

Where Does Common Sunflower (Helianthus Annuus) Grow?

Where Does Common Sunflower (Helianthus Annuus) Grow?

How To Identify Common Sunflower (Helianthus Annuus)

Common Sunflower Leaf - TopCommon Sunflower Leaf - Bottom

The leaves are bright, evergreen lance-ovate, egg-shaped, or heart-shaped, simple leaves, and up to 12″ long. The stems and leaves are covered with hairs.

Common Sunflower Flower

Flowerheads usually 3 – 4 inches across, some can become much larger, ( 8 – 12 ) inches; yellow ray florets and purplish brown disk florets. The ray florets of sunflowers are sterile, and only the disk florets produce seeds.

Common Sunflower Stem

The stems are covered in hairs making them extremely coarse.

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