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Groundwork: The deliciously seedy sunflower

Russian Mammoth: The petals are withering, but the leaflike bracts are still green and the seed has yet to ripen. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The sunflower is an annual native to North America and just beloved by vegetable gardeners for its capacity to brighten the veggie plot, track the season in its rapid growth, and draw finches and other birds in late summer.

Recipe Included

There is probably no better plant to show children the connection between seed and flower and the virtues of gardening. The seed is pretty yummy, too.

At the American History Museum's Victory Garden, a difficult growing season has taken its toll on the sunflower crop, but gardener Joe Brunetti is still reaping the rewards of his efforts. He may not have the long back-of-the-garden row he envisioned, but enough of the annuals survived to serve as great floral accents.

Sunflowers, loosely, fall into two categories: The tall, large-flowered varieties that are grown for their seed, and smaller varieties that can be used for cut flowers or, simply, for cheering up the tired, late-season garden plot.

Anyone who has seen a whole field of the gentle giants will be hard-pressed to find another farmer's crop that is quite as endearing. The flower heads turn in the direction of the sun, surely making the sunflower the official plant of the eternal optimist. If only they could breed a variety with a smiley face, the metaphor would be complete.

Farm plants are raised for their oil, a practice adopted in Europe once the Old World discovered the sunflower. The plant became an important oil source in 19th-century Russia. Russian Mammoth found its way back to the United States in the 1880s, probably with Russian immigrants, and is one of the four heirlooms that Joe planted this year. It is also, by far, the biggest, growing from nine to 12 feet high and with flowers 10 to 14 inches across. The plant puts all its energy into forming this one monster bloom, at the end of a main stem that can get three inches across and remarkably woody after a long summer.

The seed takes several weeks to ripen, during which time you should cover the seedhead with cheesecloth or prevent birds and squirrels from helping themselves. The better course is to wait for the back of the flower to turn from green to brown and then cut the stalk about 12 to 18 inches below the bloom. Hang it upside down indoors, in a shed or a garage away from squirrels, mice and birds. Once the heads are fully dry, the seeds can be raked free. The old books suggest using a currycomb, but we suspect most people don't keep horses these days.

Some of the seeds can be saved and refrigerated for sowing next May. In some climes, gardeners start seeds indoors in spring, but our season is so long and warm, that's not necessary unless you want to see sunflowers in early to mid July.

Decorative varieties grow shorter, typically to six feet or less, and have lots of flowers up to four inches across. This is still quite a beefy display, and not to be belittled. One of my enduring favorites is another antique variety, Italian White. Grow it next year; you won't be disappointed.

Seed-sown Mexican sunflower, now four feet high and wide in the Victory Garden. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Joe is also growing the Mexican sunflower, a plant related to the true sunflower but known to gardeners as tithonia. Shorter, bushier and especially free-flowering, it has lovely orange-red blooms that really pop in the garden. "It's a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies," he said. As a cut flower, it should be harvested just as the bud begins to unfurl. Again, it's directly seeded in May, and once it starts to flower in mid-summer, it will produce blooms until the first frost. The flower stems are covered in tiny hairs that give them a silky feel.

Next year, I am sowing Italian White between a row of English lavender plants. The sunflowers will begin to have presence in July after the lavender has retreated to its silver-gray foliage. The bigger sunflowers need more real estate, and can be used to create an agreeable screen. Tough as they are, they benefit from well-dug soil, good drainage and frequent watering.

-- Adrian Higgins; follow me on Twitter.

(Cynthia A. Brown)

Crunchy Sunflower Seed Fish Fillets With Arugula and Roasted Grapes
4 servings

Fried fish is delicious, but not an excellent choice for low-fat diets. Sunflower seeds give roasted fish a satisfying crunch and great flavor. Serving the fillets on a bed of greens lends fullness to the meal. The roasted grapes lend an unexpected punch of seasonal color.

Make extra roasted grapes to serve on top of butter pecan ice cream for dessert. One can only be good for so long!

From Smithsonian Gardens education specialist Cynthia A. Brown.

Freshly squeezed juice from 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cups seedless purple grapes, stemmed and rinsed
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon grapeseed oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large egg whites
1/2 cup panko (Japanese-style) bread crumbs
3 tablespoons sunflower seeds, toasted, plus more for optional garnish (see NOTE)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
4 firm-fleshed fish fillets, such as mahi-mahi, 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick; 1 to 1 1/4 pounds total)
4 cups arugula, washed, drained and dried
Freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together the lemon juice, honey, mustard and olive oil in a mixing bowl to form an emulsified vinaigrette.

Place a heavy baking sheet on the middle oven rack; preheat to 450 degrees.

Toss together the grapes, fresh thyme, grapeseed oil and salt and place on a cool baking sheet. (Put the grape mixture in the oven 2 minutes before the fish, if desired, to conserve energy.) Roast the grapes for 10 minutes or until the skin begins to blister. Pay close attention toward the end of the cooking time or you will end up with grape jam.

Use a fork to whisk the egg whites in a small bowl until slightly frothy. Combine the panko bread crumbs, sunflower seeds and dried thyme in a shallow bowl or plate.

Working with one at a time, dip the fish fillets into the egg whites, then into the sunflower seed mixture. Place the fillets on a wire rack to dry for 10 minutes.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven once the temperature has reached 450 degrees; spray it with nonstick cooking oil spray. Carefully put the fillets on the hot baking sheet. Spray the tops of the fillets lightly with nonstick cooking oil spray. Roast for 8 minutes, or until the fish is just flaky.

Add the arugula to the vinaigrette and toss to coat evenly, then divide among individual plates. Top the greens with the roasted grape mixture, then place a roasted fillet on each portion. Season the fish lightly with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

NOTE: Toast the sunflower seeds in a small dry skillet over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes until fragrant and lightly browned, stirring or shaking the skillet often to prevent burning. Cool completely.

By Adrian Higgins  | September 20, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags:  Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, Joe Brunetti  
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