Olsen Farm sunflower opening up. Photo by Kristen Tool
Is there anything better than the bright and beautiful, sunny faces of a field of sunflowers? There are many benefits to adding sunflowers to your garden.
Sunflowers, or Helianthus, are native to North America and have been cultivated by Indigenous farmers for thousands of years. Our farm is in Western Massachusetts, on Mohican land. A planting technique we learned from Indigenous growers who stewarded this land before us is to plant sunflowers along with corn, squash and beans. Sunflowers provide support for climbing beans, shade for squash, help to build and loosen the soil, bring in pollinators and help keep birds away from corn by providing sunflower seeds to eat.
While sunflower seeds can be used to make oil and are a great food source for humans, sunflowers are also greatly beneficial for pollinators as well. Recent studies have shown that pollen from sunflowers can be effective in treating parasites in both native bumble bees, Bombus, as well as European honeybees, Apis mellifera. These parasites and viruses are one of the many factors contributing to bee population decline, along with monoculture, pesticide use, climate change and loss of habitat.
Pollen is a plant based protein and an essential food for bees. When bees collect pollen from sunflowers it is like they are giving themselves a ‘booster shot’ against parasites, Crithidia bombi in bumblebees and Nosema ceranae in honeybees.
Olsen Farm honeybee and bumblebee on sunflower. Photo by Kristen Tool
Nosema is a fungus causing viruses that weaken the honeybees immune system, leading to dysentery and making it harder for bees to survive through the long winters here in New England. Crithidia can cause a strange symptom in bumblebees, causing them to lose their ability to distinguish between nectar producing plants and non-nectar producing plants, leading to starvation.
By planting sunflowers on our farms, in home gardens we can provide bees with the medicine they need to treat themselves, leading to stronger and healthier colonies and hives. Planting sunflowers along with crops like corn, squash and beans, can help to recreate healthy ecosystems known by Indigenous farmers for generations before us.
When selecting sunflower seeds for your garden, make sure they are open pollinated or are heirloom seeds. All heirloom seeds are open pollinated- meaning they will produce pollen and then seeds. Some commercial sunflower varieties have been hybridized not to produce pollen, these varieties were designed for cut flowers and the wedding industry. While still beautiful, these non-pollen producing sunflowers are not nutritionally beneficial to pollinators as they do not produce pollen for food or medicine.
Olsen Farm sunflower facing the sun. Photo by Kristen Tool
Sunflowers bring sunshine and joy wherever they are planted. Pollinator plants are most beneficial when they are planted in patches, as large as possible. Why not add a nice, big patch of sunflowers to your next garden? They provide both food and medicine- you can feel extra good knowing your sunflowers can help keep the bees healthy.
Kristen Tool is co-owner of Olsen Farm in Lanesborough, Mass., where she works with her husband to revive 28 acres of a four-generation family farm by keeping bees, growing fruit, vegetables and herbs without the use of pesticides, raising poultry, cultivating mushrooms, leading workshops, and preparing plant remedies. She is the Secretary of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association and manages a crew of incredible teens who run the local farmers market through a nonprofit program, Roots Rising. Connect with Kristen at Olsen Farm on Facebook, on Instagram @olsen_farm, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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