Forage Sunflowers – Part I

Sunflowers are native Southwest plants, used for centuries by the Native peoples.    If you plant the right varieties – and plant them in the spring – you will have a gorgeous garden full of bright sunflowers. Or you can forage some of the 70 plus species across North America and into Mexico.

Sunflower Origins

Originally sunflowers grew only in North and Central America (the “New World”).    After Europeans “discovered” sunflowers, they were rapidly shared around the globe. It is a fast, easy to grow plant, with large flowers, and highly nutritious seeds.

The title is “foraging,” but as I write this in April, it is more the time to plant some sunflowers for future “foraging” in your own yard. Gardening With Soule covers growing the annual sunflowers.

One of the many lovely varieties of cultivated sunflower now available. Image courtesy of N. Kurzenko.

In reality there are far more species of perennial sunflowers than annual ones growing out there in the wild across North America. Ancient human migration routes of hunter gathering tribe are marked by thread-like distribution paths of certain species of sunflowers. It is hypothesized that this unique distribution of plants was due to women carefully burying smaller tubers further along their walking paths, as one way to insure future food supplies.

The full sunflower species list is on Gardening With Soule (soon), along with if they are annual or perennial (information currently lacking from Wikipedia). In this Savor post we draw your attention to the ones you might forage in the Southwest – and how to eat them.  (the species list will be posted under the Forage menu  – soon)


Some Sunflower Science

Sunflowers are complicated – and a whole lot is going on!  The sunflower “head” includes many flowers that develop from the outside towards the center.

The head includes ray flowers and disk flowers.  The ray flowers around the outside are there to help attract pollinators.  The disk flowers mature and develop slowly over time in a complicated spiral.  They open first with pollen structures.  As the flowers become more mature, the pollen structures wither and the female structures emerge.

The perennial California sunflower, Helianthus californicus. Image courtesy B. Breckling

Eat Your Crop – Part I

The entire sunflower is edible, not just the seeds.  Edible parts of sunflowers include the buds (like artichoke), as well as sprouted seeds, stalks, leaves, and even the young flower heads. There are no poisonous parts, but certain parts of sunflowers have a lot of little hairs that can be irritating. In general, some parts and some plants are more palatable than others – and some species more flavorful than others.

Nuttall’s sunflower Helianthus nuttallii is a widespread perennial sunflower with narrow edible leaves. Stalks are edible too. Image courtesy S. Matson.

Ray Flowers are Tasty

The ray florets of all species are edible. Knowing just what a ray flower is is why I shared the science of the flower above. You can harvest the rays and leave the rest of the sunflower head to make seeds.

Do taste a few before wholesale harvest. Some a a tad bitter. And do wash before using.

I rinse the rays with vinegar water. (How to make your own vinegar) One quarter cup of vinegar per gallon of water. This rinse is also excellent for the garden once you are done with it.


These ray flowers can be added to salads.
They have also been used to make a tea.
They are very pretty in floral ice cubes floating in a jar of iced tea at a party.
Use them to decorate the I’itoi onion and goat cheese logs we made earlier.

Ahem. You should take the ray flowers off the sunflower head before you serve them in the salad.

Sunflower Sprouts

Sprout shelled sunflowers like you would mung beans of alfalfa seeds. Yes, you need to get the raw shelled ones.

If you plant sunflowers in the garden and they are too close together, pull the seedlings when they are about 6 inches tall. You can eat the sunflower sprouts straight from the ground, or use atop sandwiches, salads, or in stir-fries.

Sprouts of the annual common sunflower, Helianthus annuus growing in the garden. Image courtesy Z. Akulova.

Sunflower Greens

Fairly soft young leaves of sunflower plants can be steamed and eaten like cooked spinach, Technically this is termed “as a potherb.” You can also cooked the leaves in stir-fry If necessary, remove the tough center ribs of leaves before cooking.

Larger leaves should be de-veined before cooking.

Like spinach – you can eat young tender sunflower leaves without cooking – just mix into a salad.

Sunflower Buds

Pick the flowers when they are in the bud stage. These buds taste similar to artichokes. They are in the same plant family so that makes sense.

Young buds can be cooked and eaten like artichokes.

Pull off the bitter green around the bottom of the bud. You can steam sunflower buds or boil them in water for a few minutes (5 to 10, until tender) and serve with butter.

To be honest, buds of a species with fewer plant hairs make a more enjoyable dining experience.

Sauteed Sunflower Buds

If you prefer, first boil then sauté your sunflower buds.

Forage green, unopened sunflower buds.
Leave about an inch of stem.
Remove outer leaves.

Many of the perennial species of sunflowers have 20 or more small heads developing at the same time. like this Nuttall’s sunflower, Helianthus nuttallii. This means there can be a nice collection of buds for cooking. Image courtesy S. Matson.

Boil for 5 to 8 minutes until tender.
Drain the buds. Save the water for future soup stock (or discard).
Trim off all green bracts with a paring knife.
Now sauté the whole buds with a little garlic and oil until warm and even more tender.
Serve with a drizzle of butter or balsalmic reduction.

Use these anywhere you might have an artichoke heart — in salads, pasta and more!

But Wait – There’s More

Much more.  The sunflower heads, seeds, and roots are edible.  Topics for a topics for a future post, or six.

The sunchoke, or Jerusalem artichoke, is from Southeastern USA. The roots are the part primarily used for eating. Photo courtesy N. Kurzenko

Looking Back in Time

I find myself wondering if Father Kino was served some of these sunflowers as he visited the 20 tribes that lived in the area.   Read more about his life here in the Southwest in this book:

soule-kino-southwestThe last few copies of this out-of-print award winning Southwestern book are now for sale. Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today   The review says:  “Award-winning garden writer Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule has pulled together a fascinating book on the life of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and some of the plants that he brought to Southern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, and area called the Pimeria Alta.”

savor-the-southwest-kino-internationalA steal at only $20!  This link is to our sales site. The profits from the sale go to the local Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute.  We hope you will help support this great Southwest non-profit.

We are pleased to announce that there is now an option to purchase this book and have it mailed to a international mailing address.

Legal Notes

© Article copyright Savor the Southwest // Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.


The authors of this website have researched the edibility of the materials we discuss, however, humans vary in their ability to tolerate different foods, drinks, and herbs. Individuals consuming flowers, plants, animals or derivatives mentioned in this blog do so entirely at their own risk. The authors on this site cannot be held responsible for any adverse reaction. In case of doubt please consult your medical practitioner.


4 thoughts on “Forage Sunflowers – Part I

  1. Growing up in India, we had a garden full of sunflowers. I love them because it seems to me that they have such a bright, smiley face! I loved reading this article and learning more.

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