The quintessential summer flower, sunflowers (Helianthus) are a truly native American plant and are honored as the state flower in both Kansas and Nebraska. There are about 70 species of sunflowers. Most are native to the Great Plains, Mexico, and Peru.
The Hopi Indians, who believed the sunflower warmed the earth and brought rain, carved wooden sunflowers as sacred objects to help enrich their harvests. They used the seeds for food, ground them into meal and flour, and used the oil for cooking, as a salve, to soften leather, and as a hair conditioner. The stems provided fiber for making cords and rope and the leaves were smoked like tobacco. They even bred a purple-seeded variety to use for dye.
Ethnobotanists think the sunflower may have predated other Mesoamerican crops such as corn, beans, and squash. Sunflower seeds and oil were important crops for the Incas in Peru who created images of the sunflower out of gold. The Spanish brought sunflowers back to Europe with them in the 16th century where they were viewed more as a curiosity than as a food plant. In Russia they recognized the importance of sunflowers as a major oilseed crop and by the 18th century they grew them in abundance.
Pretty and Practical
Sunflowers continue to be an important oilseed crop worldwide. Many of them are used for birdseed but most are processed into vegetable oil. The green stalks are chopped like silage and used as cattle feed. The seeds and green foliage are favorite foods of many birds, mammals, insects, and butterflies.
Of course humans love the seeds too, when we can beat the birds to the harvest. The tasty seeds contain calcium, phosphorus, a wealth of vitamins, and unsaturated fatty acids. To collect them before the birds and other seed-loving critters, cover the ripening head with a loose-fitting paper bag. They are ready for harvest when the petals wilt, the seeds turn brown, and the backside of the flowerhead turns yellow. When the seeds are fully ripe, rub two flowerheads together to loosen the seeds. Be sure to leave a few heads in the garden for the birds.
Turn Turn Turn
One of the most interesting qualities of the sunflower is their heliotropism—they turn to face the sun as it travels across the sky. Many flowers have this tendency to move toward the sun but in sunflowers it is very pronounced, In the morning, when the plant is in bud, it faces east. During the day motor cells in the stem tilt the bud to follow the course of the sun across the sky so that it receives maximum sunlight. By evening it will be facing west. Overnight it goes back to the east awaiting the rising sun. Researchers have found that even if the buds are removed, the bare stem will still track the sun. Once the flowers have opened completely, they stop moving and face east.
Easy to grow, sunflowers are more popular now than ever. Open any seed catalog and you'll find two or three pages devoted exclusively to sunflowers. Along with the tried and true heirloom varieties there are lots of “new and improved” ones. They are available in a wide range of colors from white to black and sizes from 16 foot tall giants to 18 inch high dwarfs. Some grow as a single stem while others are multi-branching. There are even double-flowering ones with multiple petals. If you don't already grow sunflowers, put them on your list for next year.
Learn more on our Sunflower Growing Guide.