Maren gardens in PA, specializing in earth-friendly, unconventional, creative, joyful artistry. She works for eco & climate health.
Haste Makes a Mess of Things
Horrors! This is the fully illustrated not-to-do guide for a neophyte’s foray into sunflower food production. Whether for birds or humans, you want seeds which look like the ones you formerly purchased at the grocery or the feed store. Now that you are a sunflower gardener, do not be impatient or cut corners. Here is what may happen…
Sunflower Blossom Looks to the Sun
Mistake Number One
It is too early to cut this flower head (see above photo). The petals are still gloriously waving like a corona around the flower. Wait until almost all petals off.
Green Calyx Does Not Mean "Go"
Mistake Number Two
This one is still too early to cut, kind of… The general wisdom is that the back of the flower’s seed disk (called the calyx) should be all yellow-brown and drying out. The lovely and lively green as illustrated means the seeds are not mature, meaning not tasty and good for eating.
Immature Seeds of Sunflower Blossom
Mistake Number Three
Picking a sunflower with totally white colored seeds rather than black stripes on white means the seeds are not mature.
When to Cut the Flower?
I will cut my seed heads a little on the early side because the birds in my neighborhood organize themselves marvelously, with 24/7 surveillance on the progress of the seed maturation.
If I wait until the back of the flower is the proper shade of drying out, there will be no seeds left on the reverse side. Yes, one can cover up the flower head with a cheesecloth or paper bag to prevent fly-by avian diners from taking the seeds before the human gardeners get them. But, I did not want to be bothered. So, maybe that should be illustrated by mistake number four.
Mistake Number Four
Neglecting or forgetting to put bags over the flower heads to protect them from birds.
All That Nurturing Down the Drain
Mistake Number Five
Flower heads piled on top of each other to dry inside the garage, basement, or house prevent moisture from evaporating. Then all the flowers can become moldy. Eeyuck!
Mistake Number Six
If you are shelling the sunflower seeds before you roast them (which is an acceptable way to prepare them), trying to do it before the seeds are dried out enough is another mistake.
The insides will be like squishy white potato.
Mistake Number Seven
Cooking on too high a temperature. Whether you are roasting shelled or unshelled seeds, the common wisdom is to cook them at 300 degrees F for 30 to 40 minutes.
Pictures Worth Thousands of Warning Words
I hope these photos frightened you enough to convince you follow all the wisdom contained in blogs on how to correctly harvest and roast sunflower seeds. After bestowing all the love a gardener pours into a crop of flowers, you deserve the bounty of seeds either for yourself or your bird friends. When you learn the specifics of sunflower harvesting, you will never need to see images like these in your own yard.
Beautiful To View, Wonderful To Eat
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: This is the first time I have ever grown the mammoth sunflower. I was googling when to harvest, but because I was so anxious about the pests getting it, I cut it too soon and the seeds did not form the black and white coat yet. Is there something I can do to let the head mature a little more so it grows the shell properly?
Answer: You can try keeping it in a dry place, but it sounds doubtful.
Question: What if you cut the sunflower flowers off too early? I do not want to eat the seeds, only plant again next year. Since the seeds are not ready I’m guessing my sunflowers won’t grow?
Answer: That's usually the case. You need to allow the seeds to fully mature.
Question: I had a beautiful sunflower fall over and snap because the head was so heavy forming seeds. The head was pointing down, the petals are mostly gone but the seeds are all white. Also, the back and stem are still green. I have put it in water for now - can I do anything with my sunflower to let it finish ripening or is it over?
Answer: I would say for purposes of growing new plants next season, so not count on these immature seeds. You can put them in the ground for purposes of composting in place, but get new, mature seeds to grow.
Question: After cutting the heads off the stem/stalk of the sunflower, what do you do with what’s left standing? Do you uproot the sunflower stalk and pull it out to start over?
Answer: You have several options. Sunflowers are annuals, so leaving the root will not lead to reblooming next year. However, current agricultural research highly supports a practice called "chop and drop." It means cutting the stalk of an unwanted plant (a weed or a spent flower) close to the ground and allowing the stalk to fall and decompose in place. The root will also slowly decompose. Keeping the root in its place instead of yanking it out supports all the fungi, microbiota, bugs, and etc to use the channels in the soil made by the root. Nevertheless, that root can be an obstacle next year if it has not totally turned to mush. Try chop & drop, but keep yanking as a last resort.
Question: My seeds are striped, no yellow petals left, and completely dropped down, but the calyx is still green. Should I cut it and bring inside to finish drying out before harvesting?
Answer: I lean towaards "no." If you have more than one sunflower in that condition, perhaps you can cut only only one and see what happens.
Question: Why did some sunflowers from the same package of sunflower seeds produce all black seeds, with only a few black and white?
Answer: My guess is that a few black seeds had been inside your package. All black seeds have more bird food nutritional value.
Question: Sunflower seeds now have a black stripe but the back of the head is still green. I don't want the birds and the bugs to invade. Can I cut it down now?
Answer: It is probably still a little too soon to cut the flower head. Try covering the flower with a paper bag and securing it tightly enough so that large bugs can't crawl in, but not so tightly that you damage the stalk.
Question: Can I eat my sunflower seeds after they have hung to dry for almost two months? I would like to soak them in salt water and roast them in my oven. Is that ok to do?
Answer: If the seeds are clean - no mold or mildew - go for it.
Question: Can I eat my sunflower seeds after they have hung to dry for almost two months? I would like to soak them in salt water and roast them in my oven if that is ok to do.
Answer: You can eat them if they have been totally dry -- no mold or other growth. The salt water treatment is also fine if you roast immediately afterwards.
Question: Can the sunflower head ripen if you harvest too early?
Question: Can I plant white sunflower seeds that are not matured? The stalk fell over and snapped. If possible, would I be able to plant these immature seeds next season?
Answer: It is highly unlikely that the white seeds will make new plants. Get mature seeds for a new round of flowers.
Question: In my first batch, my heads were fairly fresh and the flowers stayed intact. The seeds were able to separate nicely from the flower. In my second batch, I let the head completely dry and the flowers came loose with the seeds. How do I remove all of the sunflowers from all of the seeds for roasting and eating?
Answer: I am not picturing your exact situation, but it sounds like you will need to manually clean each seed by pulling off the extra material hanging on it.
Question: I have some sunflower seeds that got moldy, can I save them and still plant them next Spring?
Answer: No, they are useless and possibly even dangerous to anyone with an allergy to mold. Put them in the compost pile and start fresh. And, please, do not feel bad about it. Nothing goes 100% smoothly in life or in gardening.
© 2011 Maren Elizabeth Morgan
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on September 03, 2020:
Jason, that is amazing! I have not seen that, but those outer seeds are definitely sprouting and getting nutrition and moisture from the calyx. In your photo, the leaves around the flower are quite yellow. If you want to harvest to eat the seeds, I'd say you must cut the head now. Otherwise the entire "Crop" may sprout on you.
Thanks for sharing this unusual event.
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on September 03, 2020:
Kathy, if you have it hanging head down (seeds "looking" at the floor) and it is dripping, I am GUESSING that there is too much moisture in the calyx and behind or around the seeds. Shell the seeds now and let them dry our spread on a cookie sheet or towel.
Kathy on September 03, 2020:
I cut my sunflower head and have it hanging and now brownish water is dripping out of one of the heads What does that mean?
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on August 19, 2020:
Hi Camille, thanks for your comment. I'm sorry to hear about the dried up insides of the first head. Why not try the "soaking in salt water" method described in the video and see if that helps. If the second head has striped seeds (meaning not total white), and there is some yellow on the back, I'd say cut it now. I have trouble with birds raiding my ripening sunflower heads, so I am still cutting them on the early side. Each situation is a little different.
Camille on August 18, 2020:
Hi! So I harvested my first sunflower. They’re the bigger variety, about 9’ tall or so. The back was all yellow and brown. When I bit into several of them, I found the meaty seed part inside was all dried up? Not what am I used to. Is that normal for wild sunflowers? Did I wait too long? I have another one that is green/yellow on the back, with seeds that are all striped but I don’t want to cut too soon or early. Advice is appreciated!
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on July 28, 2020:
Probably not. If it is only some seeds which aren't mature, enjoy the ripe ones and compost the immature ones.
Jennifer Maine on July 27, 2020:
Hello Me and my family went to a sunflower field and found some big ones. We are trying to harvest and we cut off the stem which is something you’re not supposed to do but, we let the heads out to dry and some of the seeds are still immature and gray. Can I do anything to make sure they are useful to harvest?
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on July 27, 2020:
JM sunflowers, sorry to hear this. Pest prevention is rough. Other than putting a huge tall cage around your flower - I would try the paper bag on the blossom if you can do so safely and maybe - I am just guessing here - putting a coating of greasy Crisco or petroleum jelly on part of the stalk so the squirrel slides down?? Please keep us updated.
JM sunflowers on July 26, 2020:
I have three mammoth sunflowers. A squirrel in my backyard got to one of my sunflowers so we put forks at the bottom the watering area. Now it looks like other little past are getting them they’re chewing the leaves can you tell me what we can do.
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on October 10, 2019:
Hello Jodie Stacey. Were the original seeds blackish-purple? Do they feel firm and plump? I cannot say whether they are okay, since I didn't see the original ones or these harvested ones. When you are a in doubt a food's about safety, do not eat it.
Jodie Stacey on October 10, 2019:
I harvested the seeds and they are purple. Are they still good?
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on August 21, 2019:
Elliott, it sounds as though all the seeds are good -- BUT -- since I can't see your ones with brown at the base, why not avoid eating those. Save them and some non-brown ones for planting next year. Enjoy!
Elliott Hammer on August 21, 2019:
I harvested my first 3 sunflowers, probably too early as the backs were not brown...thoughe all the petals were dead/dry and the heads were drooping to the point the stalks broke over themselves. The seeds are fully striped though.
My question is: Are my seeds still ok to use? I want to roast the majority of them and reserve some for planting next season. I rinsed them, and then put them out on paper towels to dry overnight. They mostly look good, but some have little brownish spots on the base of the shell. I really can't tell if that is mold/rot or just harmless discoloration. I hope I don't have to throw them away.
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on August 01, 2019:
Karyn, try putting a paper lunch bag over each blossom. Attach loosely so that it stays on but allows air in. Or wrap cheesecloth around them. I hope you have success.
Karyn Monroe on July 31, 2019:
I have either a mouse or possibly a chipmunk eating my blooms! Get a beautiful bloom ... come home and blooms looks like it’s been cut ... I want the seeds to replant ... no way of maturing them after cutting?
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on February 14, 2018:
Eloiza, your description sounds as though there is no hope. No seeds equal no new flowers. Why not explore different seeds at your local garden stores or seeds from a catalogue?
Eloiza on February 13, 2018:
Hi! What should I do to sunflowers that are given to me? They are cut way too early for the aestethic purpose of giving a sunflower boquet. I badly want to grow them. What should I do? I see no seeds at the back of the head. I put the others in a vase with water but one of the sunflowers was cut from its stem so I let it dry out however I see no seeds even tho there were no leaves left, but the center was still soft. What should I do?
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on November 20, 2017:
Joni, good question about the image. Have you tried FAQ? Hubpage staff are also good about replying to individual emails. thanks for sharing your experiences.
Joni on November 09, 2017:
Great information. As my sunflowers are often too tall to cover I harvested a little earlier also, and dried the entire seed head this year for gifts. While still fresh and crisp I shaved off most of the fleshy back (Calyx?) and they took a long time too dry beside my wood stove w a fan. They are beautiful, unique, and a fun experiment. The best success for maintaining their shape was by fastening each head between 2 cooling racks loosely layered on a wooden clothes rack. Way worth the effort. How can I import an image in these comments?
whoknows on August 30, 2017:
You forgot Sunflowers are good for goats. Vitamin E help goats in fertility plus goats love them. Now before you do not like the thought of having to split the seeds... I better say that you can give them the whole plant. You can take 2 or 3 leaves on one plant while the plant is still young and 4 or 5 when the plant is older. And after you harvest the sunflowers, just turn the goats loose on the sunflower plants. They will remove the stems and here and there the root.
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on February 28, 2012:
Keri, yes - I made enough silly mistakes that I was able to write a hub about it. It's a little embarrassing, but hopefully it will save others from a wasted growing season.
Keri Summers from West of England on February 25, 2012:
This made me laugh! At least you got a great hub out of your sunflower disasters - and we can all learn from your mistakes. This is exactly the kind of thing I would have done. Now I know better!
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on September 10, 2011:
Great, KoffeKlatch Gals! Isn't research in the era of the Internet fantastic?
Susan Hazelton from Sunny Florida on September 10, 2011:
Great pictures and great advice. I feel I can do it correctly now.
Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on August 21, 2011:
Thanks, Dirt Farmer! It is fun to snap pix of flowers and all things garden!
Jill Spencer from United States on August 21, 2011:
Your photos are gorgeous!