Driftless Terroir: Soaking Up Late Summer Joy With ‘Helianthus annuus’

The 13-acre field of sunflowers — “Helianthus annuus” — in front of Sauk Prairie Hospital in Prairie du Sac is a fundraiser for the Badger Honor Flight organization. They ask for $1 per stem if people choose to harvest a bouquet of the hearty mammoth annual.

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
who countest the steps of the Sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
where the traveler’s journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

—from “Innocence and Experience,”
by William Blake

Have you ever thought the term “volunteer” to be a bit anthropomorphizing for plants that automatically show up in your garden or lawn/ landscape? In the case of sunflowers, with their human-like characteristics and relentless cheer, I sense that volunteering is exactly what these exuberant flowers do. Whether you appreciate them aesthetically, mathematically (as each “face” contains perfect Fibonacci spirals), or nutritionally, sunflowers are generous givers.

What do you like to call those happy accidents, in other words, the non-weedy weeds? What do you do when your garden yields unexpected beauty or bounty?

Lately, I’ve been pondering the annual reoccurrence of mammoth sunflowers in my vegetable and flower gardens. I don’t recall when I bought the original seeds, or how much thought went into planning their placement. Reliably, they show up in between rows, in the beds, and along edges and fences, knee high at midsummer, ready to bolt into their eerie, scarecrow-like selves. I almost never pull them out, but prefer to work around them or, better yet, use their supportive stalks to trellis climbing vines (except for pole beans).

This summer I am particularly appreciative of the saffron-petaled giants. Between the heat waves, intermittent rain and dry spells, copper-colored beetles, mosquito swarms and a personal failure to procure straw mulch, it’s been a less-than-stellar season of backyard gardening. Without the help of friends and local farmers’ markets, I would struggle to subsist this coming winter on what I’ve been able to grow. By August, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes and garlic were coming on, restoring a sense of abundance. Meanwhile the tender Swiss chard, beets, green beans and sweet peppers have all fallen prey to baby rabbits. I haven’t even had much luck with cilantro, dill or zucchini, three direct-seed crops that usually prosper with little effort.

Snaking their way around the surprise sunflowers, purple morning glories, formerly categorized as happy accidents, pop up everywhere at an exponential rate, reminiscent of the bucket-holding brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence of Disney’s classic “Fantasia.” While I enjoy the complimentary color contrast of violet and gold, I’ve yanked so many morning glory seedlings from my vegetable beds that the thrill of their fecundity is long gone.

But I can always count on the sunflowers to put things into perspective. One 10-foot high cluster popped up behind my garage and it lends extra character to the disarray of raspberry canes, overgrown oregano and asparagus ferns. It blows my mind that one small black-and-white-striped seed, either deposited by birds or left unnoticed by them, will sprout, root and send up a fibrous stalk that supports a wide-open smiling face. A face that seems to say, “Your garden will keep improving each year, do not worry about what worked and didn’t work. You are learning.”

Sunflowers grow easily in this area, in part due to their adaptability to variations in soil moisture and alkalinity. There are almost 70 varieties of sunflowers in North America, and only three of these are not native to this continent. I remember my father’s excitement about volunteer Helianthus tuberosus, the so-called Jerusalem Artichoke or Sunchoke, in our backyard garden in semi-arid Colorado. He would slice and salt them just like a Wisconsin farmer does with a prize kohlrabi; both are acquired tastes due to their earthy flavors.

It so happens that my favorite snack while driving the winding roads of this area is roasted sunflower seeds. It is only a guilty pleasure in that the shells have a way of littering my car floor. Usually I eschew the “ranch” or “dill pickle” flavored ones marketed by the most commercial brands, and look for non-GMO sources. I haven’t tried roasting my own, if for no other reason than the birds getting to them first. Most American sunflower seeds are grown somewhere in the Upper Midwest, although I haven’t yet found a brand strictly grown in Wisconsin. I tried some Ukrainian-grown sunflower seeds this summer that tasted amazingly rich in oil, and then learned that the former Soviet Union developed many of the varieties grown commercially worldwide, including in the United States.

I also discovered that the Driftless Area produces not just one but two brands of organic, locally grown sunflower oil. The flavor is subtly smoky, not as fruity as olive oil, but blends beautifully into salad dressings or into baked goods.

Driftless Organics, a large CSA in the Viroqua area, claims that sunflower oil is the “olive oil of the Midwest.” You can learn more about their operation and products at https://cookingwithsunfloweroil.com/

Also, a student-run group at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville is producing and selling their own product. You can look them up at www.plattevillesunfloweroil.com.

Bazile Booth is a native of Boulder, Colorado. The Driftless Region drew her to a hilltop orchard in Iowa County where she lends a hand picking apples and pears. Bazile’s garden and kitchen inspire her to concoct nourishing food and drinks. These meals help fuel her Nordic skiing habit and her day job as a clinical social worker.

Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To read past columns, see voiceoftherivervalley.com. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail info@voiceoftherivervalley.com.