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There's nothing like a bright yellow sunflower to put a smile on your face. And it would be hard to find a more versatile plant, says Floral & Nature Crafts, a Meredith magazine.

Sunflowers have economic as well as ornamental value. When cultivated as a cash crop, its leaves feed livestock, the flowers produce a yellow dye, pressed seeds yield cooking oil, and dried seeds become tasty nutlike snacks for humans and birds. The sunflower's name comes from two Greek nouns - helios, the sun, and anthus, flowers. Though we recognize the annual varieties, many flower-garden varieties grow in a range of colors as smaller-flowered branching perennials. The familiar giant sunflower reigns as the Kansas state flower, but some farmers still consider all sunflowers weeds.Nearly two-thirds of the approximately 60 species of sunflowers worldwide grow in southern Canada and in the United States as native plants. As its name implies, the sunflower grows best in spots where it receives eight or more hours of sunlight per day. All relatively tall, these annuals and perennials range from 3 to 12 feet in height. Sunflowers prefer moist soil, but when mature, will tolerate drought.

Whether using sunflowers fresh or for drying, harvest them in mid-morning when the blooms are almost completely open and the sun has burned off the morning dew. Cut the stems long. As soon as possible, plunge the stems into a deep bucket of warm water and move them to a cold storage area - a cool cellar or garage will work. Store the flowers until you arrange them that evening or the next morning.

If you plan to dry the flowers, start processing them as soon as possible. To dry with the stems intact, hang individual flowers (not bunches) upside down. Hanging them in this manner produces a twisted and tattered look that crafters desire in some design work. To dry just the flower head and one-half inch of stem, desiccant drying is recommended.

Because moisture causes premature fading, protect dried flowers from high humidity. If you don't plan to arrange your dried sunflowers right away, put them in a sealed plastic container (do not use cardboard) and store them in a cool, dry room away from light.