Here’s a confession for you: even though I love them, I used to be too lazy to eat sunflower seeds. Unshelled ones, anyway. All that work cracking them open just for a tiny slice of heaven inside!
But after enjoying the large, glorious yellow blooms of my very own sunflowers all summer long, I harvested my own homegrown seeds for the first time.
Now I find eating unshelled sunflower seeds is an excellent way to keep my mind occupied when I’m on a long road trip.
And instead of a bag of store-bought seeds perched on the console, it’s a plastic baggie filled with seeds from flowers that I grew and harvested myself!
In this article, you’ll learn how to harvest and enjoy your own homegrown sunflower kernels.
If you’re just getting started, check out our full guide to growing sunflowers in your garden.
Ready to harvest your own seeds and learn some tasty ways you can use them?
Here’s what I’ll cover:
What You’ll Learn
When to Harvest
Sunflowers brighten your garden with their cheery faces for several weeks in summertime, 80 to 140 days after you sowed the seeds, depending on the cultivar.
And then they hang their heads, their petals turn brown, and they begin to shrivel and look dried out and dead.
But before they go, they have one last gift to share with you: a flower head full of ripe seeds.
Sunflowers, Helianthus annuus, like other members of the Asteraceae family, have complex reproductive structures. The center disc is made up of hundreds of tiny inflorescences, surrounded by large ray-like petals around the outside.
Each of these tiny florets in the center disc can self-pollinate and produce one kernel, contained in its own outer hull, which can be black or striped, depending on the cultivar.
The sunflower you admire in your garden is in fact not one, but hundreds of tiny flowers that look like one big beautiful bloom!
So how do you know when to harvest?
Sunflower kernels are ripe when the back of the flower head – the calyx – turns from green to yellowish-brown and the outer petals wither and drop.
As the blooms start to fade, check your flower heads closely.
The tiny petals in the center disc will dry out, and a light scrape will cause them to drop, exposing the tightly packed seeds.
You can choose to cut the flower heads off before they completely dry out.
Drying the Heads Yourself
Have you ever seen the mess that birds leave under a feeder? Do mysterious plants pop up – perhaps even sunflowers – come springtime?
That’s what could happen in your garden if you let the seeds fully mature on the stalk. Squirrels and birds will eat them and drop a bunch on the ground, resulting in more sunflowers.
Maybe this is exactly what you want. If so, ignore me! But perhaps you want to harvest the kernels for yourself and control where future flowers are planted.
And it’s easy to hang the heads to dry. Here’s how to do it:
Watch the back of the flower head, the calyx, closely. When it turns from green to yellow, that’s when you’ll want to cut about six to eight inches of stem with a sharp knife or a pair of pruning shears.
Go ahead and remove any leaves on the stalk, too, to get rid of any pests that might be concealing themselves.
Tie two or three of the stems together with twine and hang them with the heads facing down in a shady or partially sunny area that’s dry, with good ventilation – indoors or outdoors. A barn or shed works well for this.
When the backs of the heads turn brown, you’re ready to harvest seeds.
You can place a paper bag over the drying flower heads to catch any that fall off. It’s important not to use plastic, as this can cause moisture build up that may lead to mold.
Allow Heads to Dry on the Stem
On the other hand, if you don’t have space to hang a bunch of sunflower heads and you want to let them dry in the garden, keep an eye on them until the back of the head turns from green to yellow or brown.
You can tie a paper bag around the flower heads to prevent birds and squirrels from munching on your seeds.
When the calyx has turned brown, check to see if the seeds are plump and mature. If any have fallen out on their own, this indicates they’re ripe and ready for harvest.
This could happen anytime of the year from July to October, depending on your growing zone, your chosen cultivar, and your sowing date.
Grasp the stem about six to eight inches below the flower head and cut through the stem with a sharp knife or a pair of pruners.
Cutting off several inches of stem along with the flower head, makes it easier to handle for the next step: removing seeds from the head.
How to Harvest
With your hand or a knife, gently scrape off the dried out remnants of tiny petals from the center disc. These can resemble greenish-yellow buds or fluffy debris covering the seeds.
Now, for the best part: separating the seeds from the flower head. You can do this two ways – just make sure you have a bucket or other suitable container ready to catch them:
1. Using your thumbs, rub the seeds off the flower head, into a container. To make this task easier, you can break the head into smaller pieces.
2. Take two ripe heads and gently rub them together over your bucket or other container.
Read on to find out how to enjoy your fresh harvest.
Enjoy Your Harvest
Now that you’ve got a bucketful of delicious, nutritious seeds, how do you best enjoy them?
Some gardeners like to eat them raw, right off the dried flower. Crack the shell with your teeth and enjoy the earthy taste of raw sunflower straight from the garden.
Most people, though, find that roasted seeds are more flavorful – and easier to crack open.
You might also want to save some to plant next year, or make suet cakes to add to your bird feeder to keep your feathered friends happy in the winter months.
They make a delicious topping for salads, a nutritious snack on the go, and – my favorite – sunflower butter.
You can also use them in this delicious pesto recipe from our sister site, Foodal.
How to Roast Sunflower Seeds
Here’s how to roast them in their shells:
For unsalted seeds, all you have to do is preheat the oven to 400°F, spread them in a single layer on an ungreased roasting pan, and roast for 5 minutes.
Take them out and check them at this point to see if they’re dry and the hull cracks open easily. If not, pop them in for 2 more minutes, and so on, until they’re done.
If they turn brown, that means the inside is probably charred. So keep an eye on the seeds and don’t let them get too roasted!
For a delicious flood of salty goodness when you pop one in your mouth, add 2-4 tablespoons of salt and 1 cup of seeds to 1 quart of water and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to a simmer and let them brine for about 15 minutes. Drain, spread them on a baking sheet, and put them in the oven at 400°F for 10-15 minutes.
If you’d rather roast them without the shells, you’ll first need to go through the process of shelling each and every one.
It seems daunting, I know, but I promise you don’t have to crack each one open with your teeth.
Here’s how I do it:
Grab a heavy rolling pin, a plastic baggie, and a bowl of water.
Add half a cup of seeds to the baggie and seal it. Lay it flat, so that the little morsels aren’t piled on top of each other, and then crack them with the rolling pin like you’re rolling out extremely fragile bread dough.
Drop the contents of the bag into the water. The broken hulls will float to the top of the water, while the heavier kernels will stay at the bottom.
Use a slotted spoon to collect the broken shells, and drain the remaining seeds. Lay them on paper towels to dry, and voila!
You’re ready to roast. Spread the kernels in a single layer on an ungreased cookie sheet.
Roast them in a 350°F oven for 8-10 minutes, mixing and turning them over halfway through.
Or, if you prefer, roast them in a skillet over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, or until they begin to turn brown and smell absolutely amazing.
You can add salt for a crunchy snack.
Quick and Easy Sunflower Butter
Another excellent thing to try? Sunflower butter.
Both my father-in-law and sister-in-law are deathly allergic to peanuts, so they introduced me to sunflower butter many years ago.
I love to eat it on pancakes with syrup, or on a toasted slice of bread, topped with this simple fig jam from our sister site, Foodal.
Here’s how to make it:
Add 2 and 1/4 cups of roasted, shelled kernels to a food processor or a super-powerful blender, along with a teaspoon of salt and a couple tablespoons of sugar or your favorite sweetener.
I use pure maple syrup. But you can use brown sugar, honey, or a non-sugar sweetener if you prefer.
Blend at a low speed for about 5 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl every minute or so. At this stage it may seem a bit dry, until the oils are released.
Then increase the speed to medium for another 3 to 5 minutes, or until the butter is creamy and smooth.
Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator. Use within one to two weeks. Alternatively, you can store it in the freezer for up to four months.
How to Store
Raw, unshelled seeds last in the pantry for two to three months, or in the fridge or freezer for up to one year.
Roasted and shelled, they’ll last for up to a year in the fridge or freezer as well, but only three to four months in the pantry.
Roasted and unshelled, they last for four to five months in the pantry, and for up a year in the fridge or freezer.
And of course, you can save them for planting in the garden later.
Put the fresh, unshelled seeds in a brown paper bag or envelope, and store in a cool, dark place.
Remember to mark the packet with the date and cultivar name. Hybrid varieties will not produce true replicas of the parent plant.
Plant within seven years and you’ll get deliciously bright sunflowers to gaze at and harvest all over again.
Double the Delight
It’s lovely of sunflowers to give us their best treat as their brilliant petals fade, isn’t it? And it’s so easy to harvest the heads – such a fun and fascinating project to try with the kids in your life.
How simple it is to have your own fresh crop of homegrown bits of nutty heaven.
So plant them now and get ready for a doubly rewarding journey with your H. annuus.
Do you grow sunflowers and have you ever harvested your own seeds? Let us know in the comments!
And for more information about growing edible flowers in your garden, check out the following guides next:
- Nasturtiums: The Easiest Annuals to Grow
- How to Grow Pansies and Violas for Multi-Season Color
- How to Plant and Grow the Glorious Marigold
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About Laura Melchor
Laura Melchor grew up helping her mom in the garden in Montana, and as an adult she’s brought her cold-weather gardening skills with her to her home in Alaska. She’s especially proud of the flowerbeds she and her three-year-old son built with rocks dug up from their little Alaska homestead. As a freelance writer, she contributes to several websites and blogs across the web. Laura also writes novels and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.