Sunflowers Sunny Side Up

Photo by Matthias Oberholzer 

Did you know that sunflowers not only provide a vital source of food and shelter for insects and birds, but they can also clean up contaminated soil and even absorb toxic radiation? From supporting the local ecosystem to being used for phytoremediation, the sunflower is a powerhouse plant with numerous benefits for us and the environment.

Native species of helianthus (sunflowers) are among the top ten native flowers used as an essential food for insects. Honey bees, wasps, caterpillars, and beetles benefit significantly from the pollen and nectar of sunflowers. Their petals and deep seed hulls also act as protection from the elements and places to lay their eggs. Predatory creatures such as spiders, praying mantises, and ladybugs also make their homes in the flowers. Goldfinch, song sparrows, black headed juncos, woodpeckers, and wrens take advantage of this cache of insects as well as the seeds as a vital part of their diet. Leaving the seedheads to crack and fall to the ground will help sustain other birds and mammals throughout winter. These past months I had quail, squirrels, and rabbits devouring this healthy snack. I was surprised to see how the squirrels found the seeds even several inches below the snow! 

Sunflowers are good for us as well. Their seeds are high in vitamins and minerals that support our immune system and are a good source of selenium which is vital for our eyes. They are also high in fiber, protein, and heart-healthy fats that have been linked to lowering cholesterol.

Sunflowers are also great for phytoremediation or using plants to clean up contaminated ground without excavation or burying toxins in poisonous pits or containers. Sunflowers have the ability not only to absorb toxins and store them in their cells but between their cells as well, making them ‘hyperaccumulators’. They can absorb heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, zinc, chromium, and copper.  

‘Edenspace Systems’ completed a trial period of clean-up from a lead filled plot of land in Detroit. At the end of the test period, lead concentrations in the 5,700 cubic yards of soil were reduced by 43%, bringing lead levels below the federal safety standards. Another program based out of New Orleans, “Project Sprout,” uses sunflowers to clean up oil and heavy metal contaminated soil from hurricane damaged areas caused by Katrina and Rita. 

Even more amazing is the use of sunflowers to soak up toxic radiation. Perennial Sunflowers have been planted around areas of Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and now in the fields around Fukushima. Results are coming in only three years later, showing “significant remediation” according to Phytotech researchers at Purdue University. 

The word is out on how beneficial for our future the sunflower is proving to be. According to Times Magazine, sunflowers are being used from Ecuador to the Hudson River Valley for cleaning up everything from landfills, slaughterhouses, cider mills, sewage plants, fish farms, and abandoned city lots.       

So if you’re worried about old lead paint flaking into the ground around your house or an old sewage drain field in your backyard, put sunflowers to the test! Just be sure to take those stalks to the hazardous department at the waste transfer center, and DO NOT compost them! You’ll just put those toxins back into the ground! 

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