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Sunflowers yield healthy treat, mood-busting blooms

Sunflower in Deborah Maayan's Tucson garden

When I think of snacks in Israel, along with the ubiquitious Bamba (peanut butter-flavored corn puffs), something healthy comes to mind— sunflower seeds. While I didn’t quite get the hang of splitting shells easily with my teeth like a sabra, I did acquire a taste that I fulfill not only with hulled seeds from the health food store, but from sunflowers growing in my yard.

Sunflowers are native to North America, and a local organization, Native Seeds/SEARCH (www.nativeseeds.org), offers two varieties that grow well in this region. The seeds can both be planted now or during the monsoon rains.

While Tarahumara White is considered suitable for the high desert with an elevation above 3,500 feet, I began growing it when I lived in Three Points at an elevation of 2,800 feet, and have continued to save some of the seeds to replant here in the lower elevation of Tucson. As the name indicates, the hulls are all white. I find the seeds tasty, and I also enjoy seeing the flowers, which are all golden yellow.

The Hopi Black Dye variety is more typical of sunflowers, with a dark center. It produces blue/black seeds. The Hopi call this variety “Tceqa” and use the seeds to dye wool and basket fibers. They also make an eye medicine from the seeds, which are also edible.

Plant scientists think that the sunflower probably entered Europe via Spain and then spread down to the Middle East and Africa. If you’d like to try a variety of sunflowers developed in Israel, Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) offers a wide selection, with evocative names such as Zohar (splendor or radiance, and the name of a key kabbalistic text), Endurance, Jerusalem Gold, Jerusalem Lemon Glory, Jerusalem Sunrise Lemon, and the Jerusalem Dwarf that is small enough for container gardens.

The sunflower head is not a single flower, but rather is made of 1,000-2,000 individual flowers joined at a receptacle. Bees and other insects spread the pollen from flower to flower. If you plant only one variety, when you harvest the seeds and plant some, they will produce the same type of flower. If you plant several varieties, insects may carry the pollen from one variety to another, producing a new hybrid.

When bees are present, sunflowers have a higher yield, although all will produce some sterile seeds that are all shell and no “meat.”

As their name implies, sunflowers love the sun, and require full sun. Their leaves are phototropic, meaning that they follow the sun’s rays.This produces a subtle dancing effect; the plants move as the sun crosses the sky.

Just as humans love to eat sunflower seeds, so do birds. If you’d like to harvest more of the seeds yourself, fright owls, scarecrows and fluttering aluminum strips all have some deterrent action, although birds tend to adapt over time and ignore the items set out to scare them.

Once sunflower seeds mature, they need drying time before their moisture content drops enough for long-term storage. In our climate, I find that simply leaving the flower heads out to dry works well.

As well as fat and protein, sunflower seeds provide vitamin E, minerals and fiber. Sunflower butter is available at health food stores, or you can try grinding your own (some juicers come with attachments for grinding nut butter). Since pressing my own sunflower oil is hard to imagine, I buy it from the health food store and enjoy its light taste as well as the beneficial vitamin E and unsaturated fats. Sunflower sprouts make a tasty addition to salads. If you don’t want to soak and rinse your own, many local health food stores and some farmers’ markets offer sunflower greens from local growers.

Probably the best health benefit I enjoy from sunflowers is the boost to my mood as I gaze upon their sunny faces each day in the garden.

Deborah Mayaan is an energy healing and flower essence practitioner based in Tucson. www.deborah mayaan.com