Long-term food storage has one rival when it comes to the best food for survival: renewable food sources. Renewable foods can outlast even the largest food storage cache and should be a vital part of any long-term food storage plan. One of the easiest ways to get started with renewable food sources is gardening. The easiest to grow protein-producing plant is the sunflower.
Sunflowers may be nice to look at, but for survival purposes they are even nicer to tear into. Their huge seed bounties can provide a protein source and leave you with seeds to spare to grow even more. Sunflowers are hardy, easy to grow without a green thumb, and unassumingly survival-oriented.
Survival and Sunflower Seeds
You can grab any old pack of sunflower seeds off of the grocery store or convenience store shelf and add it to your food storage, but that won’t do you much good as far as a renewable food source.
Typical seeds are not germinated, so they won’t go further than the pack you have in the long run. We talk about pollinating the seeds yourself for plants you are growing below, but you have to start off somewhere. You can grab some germinated seeds from your local gardening center, or online- but be sure to check the variety. Some strains are much better at seed production than others (we talk about this a few sections down).
To prepare for any survival situation, you will want a robust food storage plan. Part of this plan should include foods high in protein and foods that can be grown or harvested. Sunflower seeds fit the bill of high protein, but can also be grown and harvested if you buy germinated seeds.
Sunflower Seed Nutrition Facts
Sunflowers seeds are a great source of Vitamins E and B, Folate, and Tryptophan (an essential amino acid).
They are also packed with protein, with over 17% of their weight being protein (17.2 grams of protein in 100 grams of seeds)
This tops eggs, another renewable food source favorite.
Sunflowers also have Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Potassium, Niacin, Selenium, Fiber, and healthy fats. The nutrients in sunflowers may even reduce risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes! A study found that women with type 2 diabetes experienced a drop in blood pressure and LDL cholesterol when they ate just one ounce of sunflower seeds daily as part of a balanced diet.
Additionally, the phenolic acids, flavonoids (beneficial plant compounds), vitamin E, and selenium found in sunflower seeds function as antioxidants.
Selecting the Right Sunflower Strain
There are many different types of sunflowers (about 70), and choosing the right sunflower strain is an important step. Some sunflowers- and all hybrid strains of sunflowers- are annuals rather than perennials. Some of the best strains for food storage include:
The mammoth strains can grow over twelve feet tall, so they can be tougher to harvest and protect from birds. The Snack varieties have been created to have plump, meaty seeds and easy to break shells.
Growing Sunflowers in a Survival Garden
Sunflowers thrive in the sun (if you couldn’t tell by the name), but are drought resistant. The drought resistance makes them ideal for survival situations where water can be an important resource.
They grow like a weed and can get well over your head with stalk heights up to 8 feet. To support the height, the stalks can grow quite thick. They are bristly and contain a natural latex inside of the stalk. Almost all varieties mature within 70 to 90 days.
Sunflowers are easy to grow in the US climate since they are native to America. They were domesticated around 1000 BC, so people have been farming them for a long time. The USDA reported that 1.7 million acres were planted in the US in 2014 (mostly in North Dakota). They are often part of DOT wildflower programs across the country, so you may spot huge plots of them on the sides of highways.
Plant your seeds in the spring after the last frost has passed. They aren’t picky about soil, but it’s best to not use sandy soil so they can support more weight. Plant them in direct sun with plenty of room for roots to grow side for a sturdy base. Six inch spacing should be good and you’ll want to go one inch deep into the soil. The flowers will lean and turn towards the sun, so be sure there aren’t any obstacles for them.
Once you plant them they’ll pop up from the ground within two weeks. While you wait, you should keep the ground moist. You’ll need to water them right after you plant and keep them moist until they sprout. For the flowers that take well, you may want to space them further apart- around one to three feet.
Rodents and birds can be an issue. Squirrels have been known to gnaw the stalks down so they can get to the seeds. Birds like to help themselves as well. Placing nets or paper bags over the hardening bloom can help the seeds cure and prevent the critters from getting to them before you do.
Whatever you do, don’t cover them with plastic or you could hold moisture in and grow mold.
Preparing Grown Sunflower Seeds to be Edible
First, you’ll need to cut the flower from the stem- about 2” down from the flower.
Hang the flower to dry in a well-ventilated room.
One of the easiest ways to remove the seeds from the flower when they are dried out is to rub two sunflowers together with the seeds facing each other.
One gripe I’ve run into about sunflowers is that they are a lot of work to eat. “Expending calories to take in calories.” None of that makes sense, and if cracking a few sunflower seeds is getting in the way of your survival… you just might not make the cut!
Still, there are easier ways than shelling sunflower seeds one at a time. Sunflowers can have up to 2,000 seeds!
The fastest way to do this without any fancy tools is to grab a bowl of water and a rolling pin.
Spread the seeds out on a flat surface in a single layer. Run the rolling pin over them until the hulls crack. Scrape all of the cracked seeds into the bowl with water.
The shells of the seeds are buoyant and should rise to the top of the bowl while the kernels will sink to the bottom. You can separate out the hulls by skimming them off the top of the bowl.
Sunflower Seed Oil
Sunflower seeds that are grown produce much more oil than the typical sunflower seeds available in stores. Confectionery sunflower seeds produce less oil than specific oilseed varieties of sunflowers. If you are looking to use sunflower seeds to create oil, it is a good idea to plant oilseed varieties of sunflowers along with confectionery varieties. In a pinch, you could get oil out of regular sunflower seeds- but expect only about an ounce of oil from a pound worth of seeds. Black oil sunflower seeds will give you twice that amount of oil.
Another big advantage of making sunflower seed oil with oilseed is that you do not need to shell the seeds. Toss whole seeds into a blender without dehusking them first and whirr away. Pour the blend into an oil strainer, and you should be able to pull out the oil easily for cold pressed oil.
Hand grinders and mortar/pestle can also be used to separate out the oil, but that whole process will go a little slower.
You can also cook the mash/blend of sunflower seeds to draw even more oil out, but it is less tasty and not as good for cooking when it is not cold pressed. To do this, you would need to heat an oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and roast them for 20 minutes, stirring every five minutes. Once cooked, you can process them through the oil press the same way and you should get slightly more oil.
Sunflower oil is fairly versatile and has a high smoke point when it is cold pressed, which makes it easy to cook with.
Pollinating Sunflowers for Seeds
One of the most difficult tasks for maintaining sunflower seeds as a recurring resource is pollination. Bees and other insects naturally pollinate sunflowers, so if you are growing indoors or in an area where insects cannot access the flowers, you will have to find a way to pollinate the flowers yourself.
When you manually pollinate a pepper or tomato plant, it is straightforward. The pollen can be swabbed and rubbed into the pistil. The problem with sunflowers is that this process produces only one seed. If you want a sunflower full of seeds, hundreds of pistils have to be pollinated inside the flower.
The pistils open at a different rate than the pollen is produced, and they start their way from the outer edges and work their way towards the center. This makes pollinating a week-long ordeal.
You will need to use a rag to gather pollen and apply it to as many pistils as possible. This is easier than using a Q-tip and the pollen is sticky, which makes it easy to work with.
Sunflowers Absorb Nuclear Radiation
A lesser-known use for sunflowers is their radiation absorption properties.
The Russians seemed to figure this out after Chernobyl, planting huge fields of them to absorb radiation from the ground.
Millions of sunflowers were also planted in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster to assist in radiation absorption.
The Final Word
Sunflowers are a great way to get renewable protein out of your garden. They make for great decorative plants too- so you can grow them in a variety of places without drawing as much attention as a full garden would. Sunflower seeds taste great, are easy to germinate and grow, and are slam packed with protein.
Sunflower seeds are definitely a power prepping food, and are worth picking up and giving a shot. They are inexpensive and could pay great dividends by livening up both your short and long term food storage.
Check out our next favorite protein packed food for your prepper pantry: peanut butter. You can’t grow it, but you’ll see why it’s another prepping favorite. Keep exploring, stay prepared, and be safe.
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