Common sunflower is thought to be native to western North America. Seventy known species can be hard to identify since hybridizing is common. For 8,000 years, sunflowers have provided food, medicine, dye, fuel, and many other uses. From short (two feet) to tall (12 feet), the sunflower has a fascinating history interwoven in the different cultures of man.
Helianthus, the genus name, comes from the Greek, helios, “sun” and anthus, “flower.” Of the yellow daisy-like composites, sunflowers are the most conspicuous. Their flower heads are the largest and their stalks the tallest, helping assure survival. As bright yellow flags waving high above the masses, they easily attract bees to pollinate them. Later, seeds are spread by hungry birds, successfully continuing the species. Bees find the sunflower useful for providing large quantities of nectar and wax for their hives.
Natives in Peru and Mexico used the sunflower in ceremonies honoring the sun god. Aztec priestesses wore sunflowers in their hair. Conquistadors found many representations of sunflowers embellishing temples, wrought in pure gold, of course! Later on, American Indian tribes used the sunflower stalks as fiber for cloth, similar to flax. They used petals and pollen as yellow dye for face paints. Seeds were used for both hair and food oil. Some tribes made black and purple basket dyes from the seeds. Others roasted the seeds and boiled them with water to make a coffee. Some tribes believed eating the seeds improved their eyesight. Some made a poultice for blisters from the leaves.
Lewis and Clark found the Plains Indians growing sunflowers interspersed with corn crops. Early settlers saw the plant´s value as livestock fodder. They sent it to Europe, where it became very popular in gardens. Through experimentation, some prepared it as an artichoke eaten with butter and vinegar, boiling the buds before they flowered. Italians cultivated it and called it “sunflower artichoke”, or girasole aricocco. It is believed that the mispronunciation of girasole led to the popular but geographically incorrect name, Jerusalem. This fact meant little to me until I glanced at my museum daily calendar. The famous and often-reproduced Claude Monet sunflower painting was in fact titled “Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers.” I had never noticed that title before. For years, I assumed the title was “Sunflowers.”
The sunflower is said to have a remarkable ability to dry out damp soil. In Holland, sunflowers have been used extensively to alleviate swampy ground. Research has shown that a sunflower´s leaves transpire six gallons of water over its eighteen week growing season.
The seeds, raw or roasted, have been eaten by humans through time. Native Americans used the ground seeds similar to peanut butter, providing a handy travel food. Today sunflower seeds are still very popular as a snack food. Go to any Little League game, and nervous parents will be cracking and spitting sunflower seeds. Kids like them too. Some are flavored with barbeque flavoring and even ranch seasoning. In Russia, sunflower seeds are as popular as peanuts, often served on tables in restaurants or the seeds sold on street corners. When the Holy Orthodox Church of Russia forbade oil for Lent and Advent, the Russians turned to sunflower seeds for their high oil content as a substitute. The seeds are a rich source of calcium, also providing eleven minerals. Their 50% fat value is composed of polyunsaturated linoleic acid.
When you have a sunny, “I-don´t-know-what-to-do-with-this” space in your yard, think sunflowers. I use seeds to cover areas not yet designed. They spring up and fill in quickly. While you enjoy the flowers you can design a more permanent planting or save the space afterwards to plant poppies in the late fall before the rains come.
One of my priorities is to attract birds to my garden. Sunflowers do the trick. Even before seeds are ripe, birds enjoy perching among the leaves looking for insects. They also eat sections of the leaves. Of course, ripe seeds are even better for the birds as they prepare for winter. They get many meals there and handily spread the seeds to other areas for planting. I don´t often reseed since the birds do it for me. I enjoy the plants where they spring up or move them when they´re young.
Sunflowers come in so many colors and heights you can pick your favorite. They germinate easily when kept damp initially and will bring you much satisfaction. They´re a small investment with a big pay-off! See you in the garden.
Julie Segerstrom is a Sonora Master Gardener whose sunflowers make her smile.