Savory Sunflowers – An All-American Treat

Sunflowers are an American native plant, used for centuries by the Native people. The plants once grew only in North and Central America (the “New World”). Once Europeans “discovered” sunflowers, they were rapidly carried and planted around the globe. Indeed, sunflowers are one of the plants that were part of the “Columbian Exchange” that we discussed earlier this year in our post about Strawberry Fennel Salad (here).


Many Sunflowers to Choose From

There are over 70 different species of sunflower (Helianthus). Best known is the garden sunflower (Helianthus annus) which lives its life within a year (annual). Fact is, the number of perennial (long-lived) species (such as the “Jerusalem” artichoke or sunchoke) far outnumber the annuals.

Tubers of sunchoke taste somewhat like an artichoke – and cook like a potato.

Long In Cultivation

Interestingly, the perennial sunflowers appear to be one of the first semi-domesticated plants on this continent. Early tribes in North America were hunter-gatherers and had regular migration routes. Roots of the perennial sunflowers were dug for food as the clan hiked along, and smaller rootlets were replanted further along the path, helping ensure that there would be food to harvest next year. (Women are fairly smart that way.) You can still find them growing along ancient Native trails across the West, especially in Northern California and Idaho.

Perennial snflower near an old Plains Indian encampment in South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Jean Pawek.

Native peoples didn’t ignore the annual species of sunflower either. Once they started cultivating other crops, such as the Three Sisters – corn, beans, and squash. Sunflower isn’t one of these Three Sisters because unlike corn, sunflower doesn’t like beans climbing its tall stalks, and it makes a tad too much shade for squash to grow around its base. Guess you could say it doesn’t play well with others, although it does grow quite well with other sunflowers, and the Native farmers selected for plants with qualities they appreciated.

Tarahumara white sunflower seeds. Photo Courtesy of Native Seeds/SEARCH

Nutrient Rich Native Plants

Sunflower seeds are rich in protein and contain roughly 30 percent oil. Oil was once hard to come by in Native diets, thus their popularity as a crop. The Hopi prized tceqa – a variety they selected over time for a striking blue-black hull color. The hulls were used as a dye for baskets and later wool. The Tarahumara cultivated a variety with all white hulls. The Havasupai sunflower has black seeds that are much smaller than most other sunflowers, but it has many flowers per plant. If you wish to grow these unique sunflowers, start next March with seed from the seed sellers at Native Seeds/SEARCH.

Many birds enjoy sunflower seeds, including Monk’s parrot but also our native lesser goldfinch.

How to Enjoy this Native Crop

Sunflower seeds can be eaten raw or roasted. Hulled or not. I enjoy the roasted un-hulled store-bought ones on long drives, cracking them in my teeth and spitting the hulls into a handy “hull cup” carried for the purpose.

Seeds (sans hulls) can chopped lightly and be mixed into various cookie and bread recipes. They are great as a topping on yogurt. And they can make a wonderful appetizer ground and mixed with chickpeas (garbanzo beans) for a sunflower hummus. Or leave out the chickpeas! This is a great option if you have family members with food sensitivities to beans. The Bean-Free Sunflower Hummus recipe is below.

Due to their high oil content, sunflower seeds make a totally yummy nut butter – a great alternative to peanut butter. But, I am told, because of this oil, the seeds do not make a good gluten-free “flour.” (Editors note – So how do they do it with almonds and coconuts I wonder)

Sunflower seeds make delicious and nutritious sunflower sprouts that can be used in salads, especially welcome when greens are in short supply in the garden.

… with basil on top!

Sunflower Seed Hummus

food processor
1 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1 Tablespoon East Texas Piney Woods Seasoning * or other salt-free herb blend
1 /4 cup tahini
2 Tablespoons lime or lemon juice
water as needed

Place sunflower seeds and seasoning into the food processor, and start it whirling.
Once nuts are chopped and starting to turn into “butter” add the tahini, and slowly drizzle in the lemon juice. Whirl to combine. Add water as needed to get the desired consistency for either spreading or dipping.

Once done, taste it. If you think it necessary, add just a touch more seasoning – but go easy. It takes a while for the flavors to develop and you don’t want to over-season.

Ideally make this half and hour or more before you plan to serve it. Use within 24 hours, or store any left over in the refrigerator.

* Seasoning Blends

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How do you eat sunflower seeds?

Please leave your comments and ideas in the comment section below.

More cooking and using Southwestern products Using Honey in New & Savory Ways (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). Only $6!
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