Sunflowers Part II – Harvest and Process

In April we shared that sunflowers are a native plant to forage, or perhaps grow in the homestead garden here in the Southwest. Savorist Jacqueline shared how to grow sunflowers on her gardening site.

About now the flowers are getting ready to harvest, so here is part 2.

sunflower seed head just starting to be ready for harvest on savor the southwest

How to Recognize “Ready”

The formerly bright seed head will start to turn dull and faded. In addition, the colorful ray flower surrounding the seed head will begin wither and fade, and even fall. When these begin to wilt and die off, it is the first sign that the sunflowers are nearing harvesting.

The most telling sign of is not on the front of the sunflower, but the back of it, the calyx that holds all the seeds. This calyx (back of a sunflower) is bright green as the sunflower grows and matures. But as the sunflower ripens the seeds, this area starts to yellow then turn tan, or even to pale brown. The color change is because the sunflower is no longer sending sugar energy to the seed head. At any point after the calyx turns, harvesting can begin.

the caylx is what to watch to tell when your sunflower seed head is ready for harvest on savor the southwest
Watch the calyx.

Sunflower seed heads can be left on the stalks to dry naturally. But this means that the birds, mice, pack rats, squirrels and every other critter out there will help themselves to your crop.


Harvesting Sunflowers

You could put netting over each sunflower head, but the best way to keep your harvest safe is to harvest it. Just as soon as the calyx starts yellowing and you can see the seeds in the center.

yellowing sunflower seed head ready for harvest on savor the southwest
Not to green, not too brown. Just right!

Cut the head off the stem. Leave 6 to 8 inches of stalk behind the head.

Remove any leaves to help the seeds dry faster.

Place the heads on a screen that is up on blocks to allow air circulation. Shady porches, sheds, and garages all work. The key to faster drying is to provide a spot with good air flow.

three sunflower seed heads showing chaff and ripe seed on savor the southwest
Don’t have a screen? At least space them so they are NOT touching so the air will flow around them and help them dry.

Allow the calyx to die off completely and turn dark brown. Once this happens, the seeds are dry enough to remove. The time this can take will vary on conditions and the size of the sunflower head, but they will usually dry out within 2 to 3 weeks.

several sunflower seed heads drying on savor the southwest
Watch the calyx. Brown means the seeds are generally dry and ready.

Remove Seeds

Each seed is somewhat loosely stuck on the head, but it is down among some sharp sticking out bits called chaff. The chaff will hurt bare fingers.

Work over the giant bread bowl, or maybe a big wide dish pan. You could use a 5 gallon bucket I guess. Old timers will tell you to rub two heads together to remove seeds licky-split.

sunflower seed head showing chaff and ripe seed on savor the southwest
See that chaff? It is not soft and fuzzy. It is dry and prickly.

Problem is that the seeds don’t all come out and then you will need to use fingers or a butter knife to rub off the rest. This is about the hardest part, and I wear rubberized cotton gloves for this. Don’t ask me where to get them. I inherited them in 1997 when my grandfather passed. He had three pair in his shed and I am down to my last pair.


Once you have your big bowl of seeds and chaff, you will need to winnow. That is the action of getting rid of chaff and just keeping the seeds. You have to winnow any smaller seeds you harvest, including amaranth, buckwheat, wheat, sorghum, panic grass, and the like. (stay tuned – hope to add these as the years go by.)

What you use to winnow depends on the size of the seed and the weight of the chaff. Wind winnowing is most commonly discussed, but it takes some skill to perfect. Not to mention space to work in and ample labor to clean up after you are done.

colendar to winnow sunflower seeds from chaff on savor the southwest


I winnow sunflower through a colander with really large holes. The holes let the chaff through and hold the seed behind. If you find just the right basket – that could work too. I use strainer with really small holes to winnow amaranth, because those seeds are tiny. Over time you will collect the tools you need for the various harvests.

To Roast or Not

I prefer to roast the seeds. Yes, sunflower seeds can be shelled and eaten raw, but the nutty flavor is enhanced by roasting. And it is very easy to do.

Another reason for roasting – I don’t want to turn you off, but this is reality.

net your sunflower seed head so the birds dont steal seed on savor the southwest
Even if you bag your sunflowers against birds, small insect pests can still get into the seeds.

The seeds may have seed beetles. By roasting you will make sure they are killed and will not infest and eat the entire harvest.

If you wish to grow sunflower sprouts – do not roast them. Ideally keep the seeds in a cool dark place, like in a jar in the fridge.

Roasting Sunflower Seeds

kitchen towels on savor the southwestThere are two methods for roasting, one with salt, and one without. Once roasted and cooled, the seeds can be stored in an air-tight container to keep fresh for months.

Step 1 for all seeds. A quick rinse helps eliminate dust and any insect or bird “residue.”

Use a basin of cool water and a colander. About a minute in the water, swirl, then lift the colander and dump the seeds onto a towel.

This is why we have about 25 dish towels in our kitchen. They get used. Indeed, they come to us used – as former bath set hand towels from thrift stores. I find them for about 50 cents each because they are no longer part of that set.

Unsalted Roasting

After rinsing, pat the seeds dry.

Preheat oven to 300 F.

Spread seeds out on an ungreased cookie sheet in a thin layer. Only one seed thick!

Place sheet on the center rack position.

Roast for 30 to 40 minutes until the shells turn slightly brown. The seeds should crack open easily down the middle.

sunflower seeds roasted on savor the southwest

Salted Roasting

After rinsing, make a mixture of 1/4 cup of salt in 2 cups of water. Do not use iodized table salt or the pink Himalayan salt. It makes the shells soft. I use sea salt, Kosher-style salt, or pickling salt.

Soak the seeds over night (12 to 14 hours)

Drain off the salt water, but do not rinse the seeds. I use my trusty colander again, and dump the seeds on a clean towel to dry a bit.

Now the exact same instructions:

Preheat oven to 300 F.

Spread seeds out on an ungreased cookie sheet in a thin layer. Only one seed thick!

Place sheet on the center rack position.

Roast for 30 to 40 minutes until the shells turn slightly brown. The seeds should crack open easily down the middle.

Store Sunflower Seeds

Once cooled, the seeds can be stored in a jar to keep fresh for months. If you have a vacuum sealer great. If not, just in a jar is fine. Out of direct sunlight.

Use The Seeds!

I like to munch on roasted sunflower seeds on long road trips, eating them one at a time to help keep me alert, using a handy cup to spit the shells into. I toss the shells under a shrub at home as a sort of mulch. There is not enough salt left on the shells to worry about.

We will share other ways to use sunflower seeds – like in these tasty little power breads.

sunflower seed loaf on savor the southwest


Father Kino’s Herbs – Nope – sunflower is not in here, but many herbs are!

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.”

A steal at only $22!  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!

Note – the price may increase in July 2024 when the US Post Office increases it’s prices.

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.

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