Sunflower – Helianthus Annuus: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Sun-facer of Wild Plants

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I haven’t found a word for sunflower in Anishinaabemowin, but *giizis means sun and waabigwan means flower. While most folks know sunflower is edible, did you know it’s a medicinal plant as well?

(*The Ojibwe words link to The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary which is the first place I look if Frances Densmore’s book doesn’t include the plant name.)

Sunflower is another garden escapee around here, or bird feeder escapee. Woodland sunflower (helianthus stumosus) is a rarity in our area as well.

Edible Uses of Sunflower

Sunflower seeds can be eaten raw, dried or roasted. To hull them quickly, grind the pieces (a chopper, coarse grinder or food mill will work) and pour them into a container of water. The kernels will sink and the shells will float. You could dry, thresh and winnow them also. Kernels eaten whole are yummy, and they are a great addition to recipes – a superb nut substitute. They can also be parched and ground into meal for gruel or flour. They can even be roasted for a coffee substitute!

Sunflower – Helianthus Annuus
Sunflower – Helianthus Annuus

Robin’s favorite nut butter is a mix of sunflower seed, sesame seed, and peanuts; he adds more sesame than sunflower because sunflower seed makes a choking dry butter on its own. Honey can be added to sweeten the seed and nut butter. Similarly, the ground seeds can be mixed with marrow or butter, and salt, for savory spread.

If the crushed seeds are boiled, you can skim sunflower oil from the top, and use it like olive oil. You could also sprout the seeds for greens.

For more greens, spring buds can be boiled and are somewhat like artichoke hearts (artichoke is also a sunflower). Around here in early autumn, where the birds may get to the seeds before you do, the spring buds may be your more reliable home grown food use. All species of sunflower are edible.

A balanced food with calcium, fluorine, iron, iodine, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, protein, potassium, sodium, thiamine, and vitamin D!

Medicinal Uses of Sunflower

Sunflower is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory
  • Urinary

Medicinal tags include Anti-inflammatory, Antiseptic, Antispasmodic, Antitussive, Astringent, Demulcent, Diaphoretic, Diuretic, and Expectorant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes a hydrating and soothing decoction of the seeds, that or pure seed oil, used to clean lungs and throat of phlegm. This sunflower seed base can be combined with other herbs like horehound or licorice, and sweetened with raw honey to make a cough syrup. Similarly, a flower tea makes a sunny lung tonic.

The various parts of sunflowers are used to treat a myriad of ailments from the root for snake bites to the leaves as a quinine substitute, for malaria.

Alternative Uses of Ox-Eye

Sunflowers help remove toxins from the soil and were employed to remove caesium-137 and strontium-90 near Chernobyl. If you have a uranium problem or some other mess in your community this is worth further research!

The oil is sometimes used in soap making.

But my favorite use is to make friends with the chickadees:

First time was a charm! But they were used to me stalking around taking photographs.

Animals gobble the seeds up!

Growing Helianthus Annuus

Not to be confused with ox-eye daisy! Sunflowers are grown ornamentally around here by many. A drive down the 503 and other nearby highways in September should be full of sunflower spotting. They like rich soil, a full sun spot – and plant them as early as possible up here if you want them to go to seed!

Besides woodland sunflowers, false sunflowers/smooth Oxeye (heliopsis helianthoides) is a native substitute, looks wise. Cup plant is another one. But I doubt you’ll find anyone adamantly against the usual sunflowers either; they are annuals and aren’t going to aggressively escape the garden. Haliburton Flora noted 2 – and I have noted 0 escaped onto the roadside. The blue jays and bunnies will love you…!


And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Stalking The Wild Asparagus (Field Guide Edition).

The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

The Good Living Guide to Natural and Herbal Remedies: Simple Salves, Teas, Tinctures, and More

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

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