Why Natives? The Wyoming Sunflower Helianthus maximilani or the Perennial Sunflower will soon be gracing every open space, every road barrow pit, and my garden. Why my garden?
Nothing is like the warm, golden color of these natives.
Fast Food for the Road: The flowers feed late pollinators, preparing them for migration, hibernation or egg-laying. Seeded flower heads feed migrating song birds as they head south for winter.
Disguised: The “flower head” is actually hundreds of tiny flowers. Look closely.
The Good Bugs: Our native sunflower attracts one very special pollinator: the bee fly (I love this name ~ Bombyliidae). You’ve seen them. Fuzzy little flies with a long proboscis that looks like a stinger, but is used to take nectar. These little insects will fill the centers of the sunflowers, their legs and fuzzy bodies packed with golden pollen. And here is the ecological role of these peaceful creatures: The Bomby is able to detect small holes in the soil where grasshoppers have laid their eggs. The Bomby bee fly hovers over the hole and drops its own eggs into that hole. The Bomby larva hatch first and consume the grasshopper eggs. I love native team members. The first and most important practice in permaculture is observation. Observation is done to understand and apply what nature has developed over tens of thousands of years. This reduces waste of resources and introduction of toxins or other human long-term damage. As practitioners we support, evenencourage natural processes. And so every year I collect the native sunflower seeds and strategically plant them in the gardens near the fruit shrubs, and I offer them water so that they will grow strong.
Yummy: Collect the little sunflower heads when they have gone to seed. Remove the sepals, or leaves, from around the flower head. Brush oil – like olive flavored with garlic or sesame oil. Bake or grill the entire flower head. The flower head will soften and then it can be eaten whole.
My cows are less appreciative of the gifts of the sunflower. They simply put the entire flowerhead in their mouth and pull the crunchiness in, crushing the sweet oily goodness.
“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” One of the most frequently used lines from any movie ever made (The Silence of the Lambs; Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter). Not only in the film arts but in the history of human cuisine, the fava bean has been and still is a staple for so much of the world.
Humans appreciated fava beans so much that they brought them home from the wild. Wild Vicia faba or Faba / Fava Beans were growing in the Lower Galilee of what is now Israel at least 14,000 years ago according to radiocarbon dating of plant material found at archeological sites. The first domestication has been found for Neolithic farmers 10,200 years ago. (Source: Caracuta, Science Reports, 2016)
Fava or Faba beans are a legume; when the beans are harvested the plant releases nitrogen from nodules in the roots and that nitrogen feeds surrounding plants. The bean is used to make falafel, similar to chickpeas, also known as garbanzo. An interesting twist in this relationship is that some humans have a genetic defect which causes red blood cell breakdown by a chemical in fava beans. It’s very rare and seems to be mainly in those of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent – the population that originally tamed the bean. It is believed to have caused 33,000 deaths in 2015.
There are many reasons that humans were moved to bring the plants they gathered in the wild close to their dwellings. Those reasons may include: finding safety from predators – animal or other humans; closer to a water source to have more consistent growth and production; religious or cultural rules, such as women going out alone to gather food; and isolation driven by plagues, such as the Black Plague (Bubonic plague; bacterial; spread by fleas). Closer their shelters, the humans assisted those plants by cultivation. Observation and accident led to crop rotation, dried food, seed collection and intentional planting, and seasonal recognition ~ when to plant, when they flourish, harvest.
I ran a test with Chickpeas last year, hoping to be able to make homemade hummus and falafel over winter. I found that they honestly need 100 days and hot dry weather. So this year I will be starting them inside, then to greenhouse until our temperatures get up into the 70 degrees F.
And a medical note: If you are on MAO inhibitors DO NOT eat liver, fava beans or wine. They cancel out the medications. This was an inside “joke” in The Silence of the Lambs: Dr. Lecter’s psychotic episodes could have been exacerbated by his diet.