Thursday, 21 July 2016

Mongolian Giant Sunflowers - stacking functions and cooking fuel

This is our second year growing Mongolian Giant Sunflowers from Heritage Harvest Seed.  Last year they grew about 12 foot high, with no irrigation, in a drought year.  Of course, they were in the back valley which gets a fair amount of morning dew.

Mongolian Giant
(Helianthus annuus)
Wow! The striped seeds of this heirloom Mongolian variety are gigantic, reaching 1 ½” long! One of the largest seeded sunflowers available. The heads of the sunflowers can reach 18” across and the plants grow 12-14’ tall. Excellent eating variety.

All these sunflowers grew tall and had lovely thick stems; however, there was variation in the number and size of the flowers that they had.  Some had several flowers, other one big happy huge flower.

I like the single flower best as these are too tall to harvest.  Either we need to chop them down (with a hatchet) or get a ladder.  This means, that with several heads, some might come ready before the others, which means we loose seed to the jay that stops by our place that time of year.  

As an example of how tall these get, here's a photo of a stand of sunflowers we planted next to the chicken run to provide shade for them.  In the middle of the sunflowers, there is an orange ribbon.  Can you see it?  

I tied a ribbon on the first four plants to flower so I can be sure to save seeds from them.  That ribbon is up as high as I can reach. 

Last year I saved seed from a dozen of the tallest, single flower sunflowers and fed the rest of the seeds to the chickens.  This gave me lots of lovely seed.  I planted some in just about every soil condition we had from soggy to my zero irrigation field.  The ones next to the chicken yard are growing best.  They are in well-drained soil, not very rich, except for any runoff from the hen yard.   They have very light irrigation, about once a week, and squash growing at their base.

In another sunflower description, Heritage Harvest seeds says, "The large stalks were also used as fuel in areas that did not have many trees."  It is little comments like this that I find fascinating.  These sunflower stems certainly are dense and dry down very well.  Maybe it is possible to burn them.  But I suspect they wouldn't be the kind of thing to burn in a Western fireplace or wood stove as they are very sappy.  I also think they are going to be fast burning when compared to something like applewood.  So what could it mean as a fuel?  Perhaps it is a cooking fuel?  Open fire cooking does best with slow burning wood, but maybe a stove of some sort?

 This is a rocket stove I made earlier in the year. It has a cob inside and is designed to work with twigs to get the most heat from the smallest amount of fuel.  It's super fast and works like a charm.  This is the kind of stove I think would work well with sunflower stocks.  As it only takes a handful of sticks to cook a meal, I'm guessing one sunflower may provide enough fuel to boil pasta for two and cook a sauce, or a small stirfry.  I won't know for certain until I try it.

These days the catch phrase is 'stacking functions', which basically means one thing has many uses. Sunflowers seem to be very good at stacking functions.  Here's what I've discovered so far:

The many uses of Sunflowers

  • beauty
  • shade
  • wind break
  • shelter for newly planted trees during the first year
  • privacy
  • high energy food
  • oil crop (perhaps with a Piteba oil press?)
  • food for livestock
  • possibly cooking fuel

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