In every possible way sunflowers live up to the promise of their bright happy faces…
“Everyone grew sunflowers in their gardens when I was a child,” says Margaret Roberts.
“Every summer my dad drew a big circle on the surface of a sunny, well-dug bed, using a stick connected by string to a stake planted in the bed. My sister and I would then carefully place big black sunflowers seeds exactly a foot apart in the groove made by the stick. We’d carefully cover the little trench with soil and water it well, doing the same every day from our small watering cans. Within a few days the first seedlings would pop through and this would be the start of our annual sunflower house. Once the plants were up we’d decide, with much arguing, where the doorway should be, and then gently remove one sunflower and plant it elsewhere. How we loved it. It was a place for thinking and dreaming.”
It was high summer at De Wildt and Margaret and I were on our usual weekly amble except that, as the weather had hotted up, the ambles had begun earlier. So too, it seemed, did the ambles of butterflies and bees, the only creatures that dared intrude on our ‘holy rituals’. But, sensible like us, they were getting out early to drink in as much as they could before collapsing in sated, blissed-out heaps by noon.
“Visitors are amazed by the size of our sunflowers and when I cut one down for them to take home, they literally don’t know what to do with it, it’s so huge,” says Margaret, handing me a seedhead bigger than a plate. I look at it gingerly and, like the other visitors, literally don’t know what to do with it. “Put it in the garden for the birds to peck at,” says Margaret, but I’m suddenly full of grand ideas, like first pecking some off for my soil so that I, too, might have great, crashingly poetic towers of happiness in my garden.
“Few people can look up at sunflowers without being overwhelmed,” says Margaret, interrupting my reverie, and I smile in silent agreement, knowing that in the months to come that is what will happen to me.
The young buds and flower petals are edible and nutritious, brimming with zinc, manganese, magnesium, chromium, betacarotene and vitamins E, A, D and B. Made from the seeds, sunflower oil is also highly versatile, being mild and bland. Plus it’s rich in linoleic acid, which prevents cholesterol deposits from building up.
“Before I’d even learned that sunflowers are as good as gold, I planted a small patch of them by scattering great handfuls of seed across a small, newly ploughed field after a rainstorm. It was exhilarating. I spent all of the next day raking in the seeds and chasing birds away, but I learned that day that in order to achieve a field of dreams, you have to think BIG. I remember anxiously scanning the sky for signs of rain and being quite desperate to get water to the field on really hot days. A wise old farmer watched my frantic scurryings to and fro and said, ‘Let them be. Have faith. You’ve got to be tough to survive, and they’ll make it’.”
In Sandy’s kitchen garden, the gigantic sunflowers tower above us, their stiff stems standing dead straight and their huge faces looking into the sun with a determination that tells you nothing would have them facing the other way.
“Sunflowers do magical things to you, I know,” says Margaret, giving me a golden moment in the strictest sense, and certainly bringing to a fitting end my year of meetings with her and her daughter, Sandy, on their special farm at De Wildt.
From the first little violets that peeped out one icy winter morning to the obscenely abundant arch of susu’s thriving in midsummer heat, my days with the Roberts ladies has amounted to nothing less than an unforgettable journey and treasured gift.
Sunflower Seed Bread
- 1 cup sunflower seeds
- 3 Tbs sticky molasses
- 1 packet ready-mixed brown bread dough
- Add the sunflower seeds and molasses to the dough and knead well.
- Bake in a well-greased bread pan at 190°C for 25 minutes.
- Serve warm with salmon and salads.
Pickled Baby Sunflower Heads
- 3 cups white grape vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp ground chillies
- 10 baby sunflower heads
- 3 cups baby onions, peeled
- pickling sauce
- Boil the first six ingredients together for eight minutes.
- Place the sunflower heads and the onions into pretty, sterilised jars (about 4 medium jars) and pour boiled mixture over. Leave to cure for three weeks.
- Serve with cheese and biscuits and spun sugar.
- To make spun sugar: place ½ cup sugar into a heavy saucepan and heat. When sugar has melted and turned golden brown, use a spoon to drag hot pieces across wax paper, creating a weblike pattern.
- 250ml cake flour
- 250ml sugar
- ½ cup ground sunflower seeds
- ½ cup finely broken halva pieces
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1tsp cinnamon
- 4 eggs
- 125ml sunflower oil
- 125ml boiling water
- icing sugar
- silver gift tin
- thinly sliced halva
- Preheat oven to 200°C.
- Mix the first six ingredients together in a large bowl. Separate the eggs into two clean bowls. Beat the egg whites until peaky and place to one side. Mix together the sunflower oil and boiling water. Add to the dry ingredients and stir. Add the egg yolks and then fold in the egg whites. Pour the mixture into a well‑greased cake tin, the same size as the gift tin, and bake for 20 mins until golden brown.
- Remove from cake tin, place wax paper around cake and ease into the gift tin. Dust with the icing sugar. Using a cookie cutter, press the shape you desire out of the sliced halva for the top of the cake.
(removes water marks and wine glass rings from wooden furniture)
- 1 cup petroleum jelly
- 2 tsp linseed oil
- 2 tsp sunflower oil
- Mix ingredients together.
- Using a thick cloth, smear onto the marks and leave overnight.
- Polish with a clean cloth the next morning.
Sunflower Seed Brittle
- 2 cups sunflower seeds
- 3 cups white sugar
- Roast sunflower seeds in a large pan without oil until golden brown. Pour into an attractive, well-greased cookie pan.
- Melt sugar over low heat until golden. Pour sugar over seeds and allow to cool. Give the whole pan away with the recipe as a gift.
- Tip: For larger squares, use a different pan and cut squares individually while the brittle is cooling.
- Sow this fast-growing annual direct in full sun.
- The soil should be well composted and well drained.
- Press the seeds 3cm deep and 20-30cm apart and cover lightly.
- Water well at least twice a week, and always mulch.
Pretty Place Setting for Special Occasions
- To keep a happy sunny theme for your table, pick a great big bunch of sunflowers for a lovely loose arrangement in the vase and complement them with charming sunflower table settings.
- The flowers keep very well out of the vase and a small card with a handwritten name will slot, and stay in place, in between the newly forming seeds of the flower head.
- Greens and golds work beautifully with sunflowers.
The Goodness of Sunflowers
- Contain Vitamins E, B1, B5, B6, Folic Acid, Calcium, copper, zinc, iron, phosphorus, mono- and polyunsaturated fats
- Seeds are a fantastic source of protein and dietary fibre
- It’s a real tonic plant – the leaves, seeds and petals are all valuable
- Uses: The oil has more vitamin E than any other oil. All parts of the sunflower, but particularly the seeds and oil, used to treat bronchial infections, TB, malaria, lower cholesterol. Sunflower seeds – sprouted –have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties. Seeds are energy boosters and build bones in children. The oil is a world favourite – it’s also inexpensive. Use it also externally and massage aching muscles, dry cracked skin, and to ease rheumatism.
Did you know?
- Native American Indians have used all parts of the plant for more than 5000 years.
- It is Russia’s national flower.
- It’s one of the biggest flowers in the world.
- It is a valuable oil crop in South Africa, Spain, France, China, Peru, Russia, Argentina and several states of the USA.
- It’s botanical name Helianthus annuus comes from Helios, the Greek word for sun, and snthos, the Greek word for flower.
Words and Pictures: Julia Lloyd
Styling and Preparation: Sandy Roberts