In the Butterfly Garden: Time to Harvest Sunflower Seeds, Here’s How to Do it

Those fabulous sunflowers you planted in the spring are likely hanging their heads by now.  The Asteracae family, which boasts more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 different species, lets you know when seeds are ready by dropping its head and turning brown on its backside. I prefer the nonnative Mammoth Sunflower for my butterfly garden.

Monarch butterfly on Mammoth Sunflower

Mammoth Sunflower seed head provides dozens of nectaring possibilities for a Monarch butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What’s so great about these easy-to-grow stunners is their amazing generosity.  Depending on the species you choose,  one tiny seed begets hundreds of tiny florets on the head, or capitulum, of the plant.  Yes, that’s correct.  EACH of those fluffy yellow growths that appear on the flower above are individual flowers.

For butterflies, this represents a nectar cafeteria.  They can land in one spot and conveniently slurp on serial nectar straws without even changing position.  But wait, this flower just keeps on giving.  Each flower later turns into a seed that birds and people seek and crave.

Sunflower head

Mammoth Sunflower head florets turn into seeds. Birds–and people–love them as snacks. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

I like to start Mammoth Sunflower seeds inside in January and transplant them to the butterfly garden in March.  By May, the stalky giants can reach 12 feet tall, their broad, foot-wide faces perching in the front yard like soldiers offering a welcome salute.  They lose their perky dispositions in June, as their heads drop and seeds form in place of the flowers.  All this for a $1.29 a pack and a regular drink of water.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

If their massive heads, ample flowers and prodigious seeds don’t convince you of their worth, how about heliotropism?  Sunflowers exhibit the endearing botanical trait of tracking the sun.  Their happy flowers faces literally turn toward the sun as it moves across the sky.  They drop their heads at the end of the day as the sun sets, and aptly, at the end of their life.

Scrape sunflower seeds from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

Once the flowers go to seed, you can leave them in place on the hung heads and birds will perch on the stalks and help themselves.  As the seeds dry, they disburse to the ground, where fowl, squirrels and other critter friends gather them for a handy protein pop.  One tablespoon of sunflower seeds has 4.5 grams of protein.

It’s also fun to harvest the seeds yourself for your own trail mix, to fill your bird feeder, or to plant next year.   Seven Mammoth Sunflowers I planted in my front yard this spring yielded 1.25 pounds of seed.

Common sunflowers on the San Antonio Mission Reach were prolific this year. Photo by Robert Rivard

The Mammoth Sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, but Texas has its own wonderful natives.  The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annus, may be the most common and provides prime habitat for dove and quail.   Their gangly growth habit often doesn’t fit into our home garden landscape plans, but the San Antonio Mission Reach has given the hardy, brown-centered bloomer a worthy showcase this year with well-timed rains.  Birds and butterflies have noticed and abound.   Also present: Maximilian Sunflower, Helianthus maximilianis, which has a more vertical growth habit and yellow centers.

Here’s how to harvest sunflower seeds:

1.  Wait for the heads to drop, all the sunflower petals have fallen off,  and the backside of the sunflower has turned yellow or even brown.

2. Cut about a foot of stalk off the top.

3. Scrape the seeds out with a spoon or butter knife, as shown in the video above, OR if you’re more patient,

Put a net or brown paper bag over the flower head and wait for the seeds to drop on their own.

4.  Air dry for future use.

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13 thoughts on “In the Butterfly Garden: Time to Harvest Sunflower Seeds, Here’s How to Do it

  1. Great post, Monika! Brought back a lot of sunflower memories from childhood Michigan. Particularly lovely photos this time around. What did you use for the video of scraping the seeds out of the head?

  2. Thanks, Ken. Nick took most of those photos with his fancy camera. The “video” is actually a GIF file that he pieced together from the still shots on Photoshop. I’m sure he can tell you how to do it.

    MM

  3. Monika

    Now that I have harvested my sunflower seeds, how do I store them. When and how do I oplant them for next year?

    • Jim, just store them in a dry cool place in a paper bag where they can get air. Plant next year, but depending on the species (and weather or not it’s a hybrid), it may not bloom true. Good luck. MM

  4. My last Mammoth Sunflower just bloomed. The flowers were really pretty this year.
    Here in South Texas, it’s August 2 (2012). Can more sunflower seeds be planted now
    to bloom in the fall?
    Thanks for your answer.

    • I think it’s too hot to grow them now and you may not have time for them to get to the flower phase before the days get short. However, consult the seed package as some may have a shorter life cycle. Good luck! MM

  5. My Maximillian Sunflowers just began opening this past week. And to my delight, the butterflies discovered them immediately. Ha, they probably had their eyes on the ever-swelling buds all along…

    But you’ve inspired me to sow some Mammoth seeds for next spring!

  6. Very informative and helpful. I planted three different plants. Two of them stayed small but have excellent seeds. The one large one, has drooped for a while now. I noticed lots of ants in the plant when the small yellow flowers were present. I have pulled off a few of the seeds of the large plant but there is no kernel inside. Only my small plants have the kernels. Do I need to wait longer? The back of the plant is still green. We are still having warm daytime weather, but cool nights.

    Richard
    Laguna Niguel, California

    Thanks

  7. Hi,
    Thanks for this article. I have the mammoth sunflowers in our frontyard and started blooming! They are huge indeed, and very attractive.

    I was just wondering if this variety will bloom or yield again and again? Or it is just a single flower per plant? (Which would mean once the flower is harvested, the plant has no use anymore and can now be taken down?)

    Thanks
    Dennis

    • Sunflowers are annuals, so they won’t bloom again. However, don’t take them down too quick, as the birds love eating the seeds and will be drawn to your garden. Save some seeds for next year and plant for more flowers.

      • Thanks for the quick response, Monika.
        So mammoth sunflowers only have 1 flower during the year /lifetime? If we harvested the flower and put it in a vase inside the house, can we now then cut down (or replace) the plant at the frontyard?

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