This Flower Could Save Your Life!
The prepper’s ultimate plant is a flower. If you could grow just one plant, as a prepper, it should without a doubt be sunflowers. They grow fast and strong. They have been used to pull radiological waste out of the environment after Chernobyl and Fukushima. The large stalks can be used to build structures like teepees. The stalks are very fibrous, so you can use them as kindling when dried. You can pound the strands of fibers out and make paper or even rope. You could even make a flute out of the stalk. Sunflower seeds and flour are gluten-free. It’s also grain-free, nut-free, paleo and keto-friendly, making it an excellent choice for almost any dietary lifestyle. Sunflower seeds are rich in healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. Just 1/4 cup of them has 14 grams of fat, 5.5 grams of protein, 6.5 grams carbs, 3 grams fiber, vitamin E, B6, Niacin, Folate, Pantothenic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium. Not only are they easy to grow and beautiful additions to your landscape, but every single bit of the plant is also usable and edible, from the petals to the seeds, the stalk, and even down to the root. I’ll repeat that, every bit of the plant is edible.
Any of the many species of sunflower could very well save your life one day, as many only think of the seed as food. In this video, I’m going to harvest a mammoth sunflower that I grew with a stalk about 8 feet tall. When they’re that big, there’s lots of material in the stalk. I’ll harvest the center of the stalk, make flour, explain the other uses of it, make char stalk for fire-starting, and show you how to make a fantastic sunflower stalk and oat flour cookie that’s healthy for you, gluten-free, and probably the healthiest cookie you’ll ever eat. I’ll also try and bake bread with it. I wasn’t able to find anyone who has ever processed the sunflower in this way for these purposes, so this will be a first that we will have to see together how well it works. Let’s get into it.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Sunflowers, or Helianthus, is a genus of about 70 species of annual and perennial plants in the daisy family. They range from Jerusalem Artichokes cultivated for their roots to Mammoth Sunflowers prized for their seeds and beauty. They are native to North America and Central America. It grows throughout the Summer and into Fall. Domestic sunflower seeds have been found in Mexico, dating to 2100 BCE. Indigenous American people grew sunflowers as a crop from Mexico to Southern Canada as early as 5000 years ago. The seeds were eaten, and the stalk would often be used as a building material. The first crop seeds were brought to Europe by explorers in the 16th century.
They were first cultivated as a food source, with early Americans using the seeds to crush into flour for bread. Sunflowers weren’t just used for food. Sunflowers were extremely popular around Europe, Russia, and Ukraine in the 1700s. By the early 19th century Russian farmers had grown over 2 million acres of sunflowers. When the Russians cultivated them to extract the oil for cooking, new cultivars came back to the Americas.
Of the dozen or so Mammoth Sunflower seeds that I planted, I was able to grow just one massive sunflower. I let the birds eat the seeds. I tend to do that if I’m not going to process the seeds to give them a little easy food. Every bit of the sunflower is edible: the seeds, root, stalk, leaves, and petals. Every bit of it. For this sunflower, I am mainly interested in the stalk.
Inside this flower’s stalk, just like artichokes or any other large flower, is a fibrous material that is mainly fiber, super absorptive, and with multiple uses. You can use the dried stalk center for insulation in structures or clothes, molding containers, for putting around plant roots to absorb water, for starting a fire, or as I will do here, for making sunflower flour and char stalk for lighting fires.
To harvest it, I simply sawed it down, cut it into 2-foot pieces I could work with, then I split it, and used a spoon to remove the spongy center. My 8-foot or so stalk yielded a large bowl full of sunflower stalk center. The easiest way I found to extract the pith was with a spoon, but anything you could scrape the stalk against would work for this process. Don’t waste the outer stalk, though. These I just cut down into smaller pieces and I’ll let them dry out completely. They’re fibrous and burn hot and fast. They make some of the best kindling you’ll ever find.
It’s this center part of the pith and a little xylem that we will use to make our products, but I will emphasize again that the entire plant is completely edible. The whole purpose of this part of the plant is to transport water and nutrients up the plant stalk. The outer shell provides the rigidity to keep the plant erect. As such, it’s great at absorbing liquids.
DRYING IT OUT
I dried mine on the lowest setting of my oven, 175 degrees. After giving it a quick rinse, I simply spread it on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet and put it in the oven. If you take it out too early or dry it too slow, the moisture will cause some of it to oxidize and brown a little like a banana. It’s all still perfectly edible, and I believe this deepens the sunflower flavors which are minimal in the pith, to begin with. When it’s completely dry, it will take on a styrofoam texture and feel.
You can use sunflower pith as natural insulation if you keep it dry. You can put it around plant roots in dry climates to grab and retain water for thirsty plants. Modern uses have added stalk flour to polymer containers, to create a starch-based and more biodegradable rigid container. It’s one of the lightest materials out there at 1/8 the weight of cork, so you could use it when packed and sealed in a watertight container or sleeve as a flotation device. The dried stalks can be laced together with sunflower stalk rope to make a raft. Really, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the possibilities of this plant.
I placed mine in the oven and dried it completely for almost a full day at 175 degrees. Since I was making flour out of it, I wanted it to be bone dry, but you can use it after just general dehydration and when it takes on the consistency of styrofoam.
MILLING TO FLOUR
Once it is completely dry, it is easy to grind down to flour. You could probably break it apart roughly with just your hands. You could definitely mill it down by rubbing it between two rocks or in a mortar and pestle. I used my Vitamix blender to easily mill it down to almost a pastry flour lightness. Of all the grains I have ever milled down in this manner, this sunflower pith was clearly the easiest. It became a fine dusty powder in a very short time.
I was impressed by the overall yield. It was more than I expected.
CHAR STALK & ACTIVATED CARBON
Because this dried pith was so fibrous, I had a hunch it would make good char cloth or, in this case, char stalk. You may have heard of char cloth. The production of char cloth occurs when organic cellulose-based fibers undergo pyrolysis, an irreversible chemical reaction that includes the thermal decomposition of material in an atmosphere absent of oxygen. Char cloth is a form of bio-mass, termed bio-char. Char cloth is the result of incomplete combustion, as oxygen is a limiting reagent in the reaction due to the limited oxygen let into the tin during the production process. It’s typically made from cut-up pieces of all cotton t-shirts.
What char cloth or stalk means to us is that it will easily take a spark, burn slow and hot, and allow you to add other materials to get a raging fire. If you have ever just used the flint and steel method, you know that the drier the tinder the better.
To make char stalk, I used a metal tin that I poked a hole in the top of. You want to vent off the gasses of the material inside, and the hole will let you know when the char cloth, or in this case stalk, is done. When the smoke has stopped and the flammable gasses are no longer producing a flame on top, your char cloth is done.
I put the container in my gas fireplace and hit it with a low flame. After a while, it was smoking really well. There was even a small wick-like flame coming through the hole. I finished it with a strong flame until all smoke and flames out the whole had completely stopped. When you remove the contents you have to be very careful. It is extremely fragile. It’s a microscopic matrix of carbon atoms that will take and coddle whatever spark you give it. Store it in its own zip lock baggy and put that in a hard container or the tin you used.
It took the spark with relative ease, but it was harder to tell that it was lit than it is when using char cloth. I think that char cloth’s flatness and the woven matrix are better for this purpose, but the char stalk will work. Keep it dry and moisture free and you will be able to start a fire in all kinds of conditions.
It’s also excellent activated charcoal in this state. As such, it is a highly porous substance that attracts and holds organic chemicals inside it. It will attract and adsorb volatile organic compounds like Benzene, Toluene, xylene, chlorine, and some oils. Absorb is when two materials chemically combine. Adsorb is when one material sticks to the surface of another. In this case, the volatile organic compounds stick to the surface of the char stalk activated charcoal, so they adsorb. You can use this sunflower stalk activated charcoal as a critical layer in your water filtration system. With both the char stalk fire-starting and the water filtration capabilities, this is a great addition to your prepping supplies. As one of the lightest substances, 8 times lighter than cork, you can tuck away quite a bit in your prepping supplies and not feel the weight of it.
USING THE SUNFLOWER FLOUR FOR COOKIES & BREAD
There is almost nothing written at all about using the pith as a flour for baking, so I’m completely in new territory here. I will also let you know, as you will see here, I’m not much of a baker. Still, the cookies I made came out quite tasty and held their form well enough. I found that the sunflower flour didn’t really take to yeast. There aren’t enough starches and sugars in there for yeasts to really have a go at it, but I tried to make a loaf of basic bread with it as well. For this first baking experiment, I wanted to try sunflower and oat cookies to stay as true to the original ingredients as possible.
My sunflower easily yielded about 4 cups or more of super-fine flour, so I decided to use ¾ cup of it to make a simple sunflower butter cookie. I will tell you now, I’m not a baker, but I was surprised at how good these were. Here is the recipe:
You will need:
¾ cup sunflower pith flour
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup sugar
½ cup sunflower seed butter
1-ounce oil of your choice (coconut or vegetable)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
⅔ cup ground/milled steel cut oats ground finer or flaked oats
½ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
They were delicious. I think they’re healthy for me to eat. I don’t know, but I could have easily eaten the whole batch in one sitting.
For the bread, I wanted a comparison to a regular loaf of white bread, so I pulled out my bread machine and used the most basic recipe I could find. I didn’t have enough flour left over, so I ended up using half sunflower pith flour and half regular bleached flour. Here is that recipe:
1 1⁄3 cups lukewarm water2 tablespoons powdered milk
1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1 3/4 cups white flour or 1 3/4 cups sunflower pith flour
2 teaspoon yeast
I used the dough setting to give it more time to rise, then I set it for a 58-minute loaf. The end result was an edible, somewhat nutty loaf, but it was very dense. If it’s what you had to survive on and you were stretching your supply of flour or wheat berries as far as you could, then yes, this might be a way to do it. I think the only rise I was able to achieve was owed to the flour that I used. I don’t think the pith flour has anything the yeast can really eat in there. If sunflower pith flour was all you had, you might try to make it like an Irish Soda bread that would rise without the use of yeast.
There you have it. One plant you absolutely need in your prepper garden is the sunflower. I’ve only shown you a couple of uses for it here utilizing just one part that is often discarded. Whether it’s aerating your mulch pit, feeding your chickens, filtering your drinking water, removing radiation from the environment, used as a construction material, kindling, harvested for the seeds, pressed into oil, or used to build a raft, the list of options for this easily grown food source are perhaps without limit.
If you could take with you or have with you just one plant, make sure it’s the noble sunflower. I’ve shown you just a few uses of one part of it, do you know of another? Leave a comment and let us know how you use the sunflower plant. Is there another plant I should grow and show you how to use? If you have an idea you would like to see in a future video, please leave a comment here and let me know.