Please remember that Forage Friday is presented as trivia and not to be mistaken for medical advice.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m not positive about the identity of the sunflowers in tonight’s post. They Sunflowers but I’m on the fence about if they’re Woodland Sunflower or Pale Leaf Sunflower or if I have photos of both species. While online sources say that both species produce edible parts I’m only able to confirm that Pale Leaf Sunflower has edible roots.
Nothing signals that we’re in the last days of Summer like the appearance of sunflowers. In our modern world we think of sunflowers as giants with huge blossoms full of large seeds to roasted and covered with salt. And the they are wonderful! However, that hybrid comes to us from Russia. But it’s not necessarily alien to North America. The history of the giant sunflowers that we all know and love started in the New World when Native Americans began to cultivate a particular type of yellow flower that blooms in August. I’m not sure what species of sunflowers were the first and there’s several to choose from. Jerusalem Artichoke has the most widely used roots and are available in stores. They’re often grown in gardens and were important to rural families because they produced massive amounts of edible tubers. They do escape the garden and are often found in the wild but there’s already quite a bit of information about them on the internet. The same goes for the iconic giant sunflowers that are grown commercially.
The living ancestors of both of these plants would have looked a lot like the one in tonight’s Feature Image. Only about four feet tall with flowers that are only a few inches in diameter. The wild sunflowers also have much smaller seeds that require a little more work to prepare.
Although small compared to the hybrid sunflowers the wild versions are highly productive. They make up the difference by producing multiple blooms and really drawing in the pollinators. The tiny sweat bee in the image above is probably less than one quarter inch long. But the bee is a mighty little powerhouse itself and soon this sunflower will have a bunch of ripe seeds that goldfinches absolutely love. I’ve observed from my feeders that goldfinches are messy eaters. I think that they drop as many seeds as they eat and thus help spread a colony of sunflowers.
Native Americans used the seeds from wild sunflowers to make flour or just eat out of hand. And even found that the unopened blossoms were delicious. Eventually the sunflowers spread to central and south America were the people cultivated them further and developed more productive races that eventually became separate species.
So here’s the thing about types of wild sunflowers. I’ve struggled to decide if I have Helianthus divaricatus which is Woodland Sunflower or Helianthus Stumosus which is Pale Leaf Sunflower. That’s important because the vast majority of online sources only list Pale Leaf Sunflower as a wild edible. Neither plant is considered toxic but when I see a difference in the amount of listings I have to presume that there’s a reason why one is giving preference above the other. And only Jerusalem Artichoke and Pale Leaf Sunflower are noted as having the edible tubers. There is something special about the tubers of the Jerusalem Artichoke which I suspect that Pale Leaf Sunflower shares and that’s the type of starch stored in it. It contains a substance known as Inulin and inulin is capable of helping diabetics control blood sugar. It digests slowly and thus stability is achieved.
Native Americans would grind the seeds of these wild sunflowers and boil the mass to release the oils in the seeds. In addition to food uses they used the sunflower oil as a base for paint. I’m not aware of Native Americans making soap but I do understand that at some point someone realized that the oil from sunflowers could be mixed with lye from wood ashes and made into soap.
Before signing off tonight I do want to point out that there are some look-alikes that are often found nearby wild sunflowers.
The first being wingstem. The most noticeable difference between wingstem and sunflower is its namesake. The stem of wingstem has “wings” in the form of grasslike flanges running up the length of the stem and the seed head is more globe like. Wingstem isn’t listed as toxic but it’s said to taste awful.
The next is cutleaf coneflower. I haven’t really researched it yet but it’s in the buttercup family and that means it’s potentially toxic. Notice the cone shape center of the flower that gets taller as it matures and the petals that seem to droop. I’ve noticed a few leaves that seem to opposite of each other but the overall pattern of leaf growth is the alternate pattern. It’s said that Native Americans used cutleaf coneflower as a detoxifying tonic in early Spring but I have not yet looked into it so for now it’s off the table.
That’s it for tonight’s Forage Friday! Good night friends and be blessed throughout your days.
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