Sunflower in the Aromatic Garden is the second in a trilogy of articles written by Sharon Falsetto.
Last week’s post looked at an introduction to sunflower oil and how it is used in aromatherapy practice. In the second post of the current trilogy, we are taking a quick look at how sunflower is useful in the aromatic garden. This is a plant which is easy to grow for beginners, directly from seed, in the right climate. It also has some perceived benefits with regard to permaculture and phytoremediation.
Description of Sunflower as a Plant
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is hard to miss in any garden. The sunflower dazzles you with its large, yellow head, and its tall, erect stalk. Other varieties, in colors such as bronze and red, are now popping up and are just as stunning in appearance.
You may think that sunflowers aren’t aromatic plants and, technically, you would be right when compared to traditional aromatics such as rose (Rosa x damascena) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). However, the leaves of the sunflower do have an aroma to them and can be distilled into a rare essential oil, as discussed in the first post of this trilogy. It is one of my favorite, subtle aromas in the garden, especially after rainfall.
The sunflower has a rare ability to direct its head towards the sun. Some people say that the sunflower does not follow the path of the sun throughout the day but I have witnessed it doing so in my own garden. In fact, Helen Keller had this to note about the sunflower:
“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow. It is what sunflowers do.”1
A botanical profile of sunflower was discussed in the first post of this trilogy.
How to Grow Sunflower in the Aromatic Garden
Sunflower is an annual plant but, if the seedheads are left through the end of the season, it will self-seed the following year. You may also find the sunflower popping up in unexpected places, as its seed is carried by birds and other critters around the garden. I have sunflowers which have self-seeded in garden pots (alongside the original plants), hanging baskets, and in the middle of a gravel pathway. I never pull them and allow them to “bloom where planted” so it makes for an interesting sight around the garden!
Sunflower can be grown from direct sowing the seed in your garden in the spring, after the last frost has passed. Sunflowers require a lot of water and sunshine to thrive. Even self-sowers will not survive without a steady water supply and several hours of sunshine a day. Sunflowers will bloom from summer through Fall, depending upon your climate and season.
Sunflower is just as happy to stand alone, with members of its own tribe, or as a beneficial companion plant and/or pest repellent. Personally, apart from the self-sowers, I think that sunflower does best in groupings.
The Role of Sunflower in the Aromatic Garden
Sunflowers can be grown as companion plants. Their tall, sturdy stems provide shade for other plants – especially those in the vegetable garden that wilt in too much sun (such as lettuce) – and they attract bees for pollination, of both themselves and other plants.
Permaculture and Phytoremediation with Sunflower
Permaculture draws on the natural world to design a holistic “health care” system for the garden to create and sustain food and resources in harmony with its environment. A simple example is that of organic gardening.2 Sunflower is considered a permaculture worker in the garden because of its perceived ability to be beneficial in the process of phytoremediation.
Phytoremediation is the removal of harmful toxins from the soil with the use of living green plants.3 The sunflower will draw up the harmful ingredients into its leaves, stalk and flowerhead, making harmful soil (such as that filled with lead) usable. However, sunflowers used in this way should not be eaten or harvested but disposed of in safe way.4
Sunflowers, like other plants, possess various chemical components to deter predators. In the case of sunflower, sesquiterpene lactones found in the anther of the plant prevent sunflower moth larvae from feeding on the plant.5 However, this same chemical component can deter other plants from flourishing in the sunflower’s vicinity – great news for supressing weeds, but not so good for companion plants. Personally, I have not experienced this phenomon in my garden, despite the sunflower’s reputation as an allelopathic plant. However, not all plants are deterred by the sunflower’s defenses and can bloom quite happily alongside it.6
Harvesting Sunflowers from the Garden for Medicinal Uses
The first post in this trilogy looked at the use of sunflower as an oil, but sunflowers grown in the garden can be use for other medicinal purposes, too.
Both the leaves and the seeds can be tinctured and infused for various purposes including coughs and colds, respiratory problems and inflammatory conditions.7
Learn More About Sunflower as a Carrier Oil in Aromatherapy with Sedona Aromatics
If you would like to learn more about carrier oils such as sunflower, consider the Sedona Aromatics Certificate in Professional Aromatherapy course!
Farmers’ Almanac Website, Sunflowers to the Rescue!, accessed from: https://www.farmersalmanac.com/home-garden/2012/06/11/sunflowers-to-the-rescue/
Deep Green Permaculture website, What is Permaculture?, accessed from: https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/permaculture/
United Nations Environment Programme website, Phytoremediation: An Environmentally Sound Technology for Pollution Prevention, Control and Redmediation, accessed from: http://www.unep.or.jp/Ietc/Publications/Freshwater/FMS2/1.asp
The McGraw-Hill Companies Website, Phytoremediation: Using Plants to Heal Soil, accessed from: http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/pae/botany/botany_map/articles/article_10.html
Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry website, Feeding and toxic effects of floral sesquiterpene lactones, diterpenes, and phenolics from sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) on western corn rootworm, Mullin Christopher A, et al., accessed from: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf00012a041?journalCode=jafcau
Penn Live website, Are sunflower shells toxic to plants?, accessed from: http://www.pennlive.com/gardening/2013/06/are_sunflower_shells_toxic_to.html
A Modern Herbal website, Sunflower, accessed from: http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/s/sunfl100.html
Author is a 24 year veteran in the health care and aromatherapy industry and a UK-certified aromatherapist. She is both a published author and editor in aromatherapy, a consultant, custom blend formulator and herbal studies student. She is the author of Authentic Aromatherapy and the current chief editor of the NAHA Aromatherapy Journal. She works from her garden studio in Sedona, Arizona,on her one acre homestead and aromatic gardens.