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Sunflowers are perhaps one of the most well-known edible flowers. The edible seeds from the Common Sunflower are well known and commercially available.
However, you may not know that another member of the sunflower family, the Prairie Sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), is also widely spread across North America and just as edible. This beautiful plant species can be freely foraged in many areas as it is considered by some to be a weed.
Identifying Prairie Sunflower
Prairie sunflower is a taprooted annual, blooming between June and September. The flowers are hermaphrodites, containing both male and female parts, and closely resemble those of the Common Sunflower. The flowers are 1 ½ to 3 inches across, with 12 to 25 yellow petals. The center disk is brown and about an inch in diameter, fruiting into a head of ¼ inch brown seeds.
Prairie sunflower grows up to 4 feet tall, and the stems are erect and hairy. The leaves grow alternately and have somewhat wavy edges, though the shape is somewhat variable. Leaves are rough in texture and bluish green in color, with a length of 2 to 5 inches.
Where to Find and Forage
Prairie Sunflowers grow commonly in sandy areas and thrive well in heavy clay soil and dry prairies. Like most other members of the sunflower family, they cannot grow in shady areas. They require direct sunlight to thrive.
Prairie Sunflower started as a native to the Western United States. From Minnesota and down into Texas, and all the way west to California. Distribution has expanded though into the Eastern United States as well, and even up into Central and Western Canada. It is now the most widely distributed species of sunflower, second only to the Common Sunflower.
On top of being widely distributed and available, Prairie Sunflowers are exceptionally useful. Virtually all parts of the plant are edible or otherwise useful once foraged, and you can make culinary use of them at all stages of life.
The sprouts of the sunflowers can be harvested when they’re about 6 inches tall, and are a fantastic microgreen full of vitamins and antioxidants. Try them in a salad, sandwich, or toss them into a stir-fry.
Petals and Leaves
The petals and leaves of the Prairie Sunflower can be used as greens in salads. The petals are known to have a bittersweet taste, and aren’t appetizing on their own in large quantity. Mix them into salads for color or to balance out sweeter flavors in your dishes.
The Leaves can be boiled like spinach or baked like kale chips. They can also be steeped to make tea as an herbal supplement. Use caution as the hairs on the leaves may cause irritation in some individuals when consumed.
The whole flower is said to be quite good when harvested young, when green and before they’ve quite opened. These small buds can be boiled and served with butter. Buds are described as having a similar taste to artichokes.
Sunflower Seeds are of course the most known edible part of the sunflower plant. The prairie sunflower is no different, with seeds ready to harvest once the rear disk flowers have turned from green to yellow. They can be eaten raw or cooked. Cooking the seeds involves soaking them overnight in salt water and then roasting at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours. For those willing to take on the effort, the seeds can be ground into powder and kneaded into seed butter.
Stalks and Roots
When it comes to the stalks, the young ones have the most potential. Some sources claim that the peeled stalks of the Prairie sunflower have a similar taste and texture to celery. Cut them into bite sized snacks or toss them into salads for the crunchy texture. Try freshly peeled young stalks with peanut butter or Hummus. Avoid the older plants and stalks, which become woody and inedible.
Finally, the roots can be roasted, fried, steamed or eaten raw. Some people shred the root to create a slaw.
Cautions and Concerns
Some sources claim that the stems and leaves of sunflowers contain toxins which may cause reactions in humans and animals. Although disputed, there may be legitimate reasons for a reaction to occur. One may be that the hairs of the stems and leaves can cause irritation when eaten.
More concerning than that is that Sunflowers are excellent at absorbing toxins from the soil they grow in. In fact, the Farmers Almanac recommends planting sunflowers to absorb lead and other heavy metals such as arsenic and zinc from the soil. After the Hiroshima, Fukushima, and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, fields of sunflowers were planted at these sites to absorb toxic metals and radiation from the soil.
Although this author could find no toxic lookalikes, instead the forager should be cautious of environmental factors. Although Prairie Sunflower can be found readily on roadsides in the summer, harvesting and eating these plants is not recommended.
Be aware of the potential for toxic runoff and chemical buildup in soils near roads, construction sites, and industrial spaces. When in doubt, move along and find a safer space to forage.—————
Written by Taylor Calderon
Taylor Calderon is a freelance graphic designer and writer from South Texas. They have a passion for art, food, and living self-sufficiently. They enjoy writing on a variety of topics and issues, from sustainable living to botanicals and foraging, to travel and culture. To see more of their work, you can view their portfolio at www.flamingink.art
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