Sunflowers conjure up visions of sunny, summer days and fields of yellow. The head-heavy, statuesque flower is native to North America and has been cultivated here for an estimated 8,000 years. Because sunflowers are easy to grow, birds and animals depend on them for food. Sunflowers are now grown worldwide, providing much needed nutrition for people in many countries where other grains and seeds are scarce and food is at a premium.
What is a Sunflower?
Sunflowers are tall, hardy flowers that tolerate diverse temperatures, but grow best when temperatures range in the seventies. They crave sunlight and water and their growing season is short—around 30 days from last pollinated flower to mature sunflower. Sunflowers (helianthus annuus) are classified in this way:
Species: Helianthus annuus
Sunflowers undergo photosynthesis and thus make their own food. They also self-reproduce—that is, they don’t need a male and a female sunflower to make a baby sunflower. Each sunflower head has up to 2,000 individual flowers connected to its nucleus-like base, most of which will develop into seed. As flowers mature into seed, the sunflower springs up to 10 feet tall, although most stick around five to seven feet.
There are conflicting reports about the sunflower’s origination. Fossils resembling sunflowers have been found in South America, causing debate about the origin and known history of the flower. Sunflowers prior to the first domesticated sunflowers around 1,000 B.C. grew wild. Native American Indians used sunflowers for food, oils, medicine and ceremony. By selecting only the best and largest seeds, Native Americans were able to increase sunflower seed size by 1000 percent, a notable scientific accomplishment.
Once thought to follow the sky pattern of the sun, sunflowers are actually only heliotrophic when they are young. Mature, woody sunflowers don’t move toward the rising and the setting of the sun. They also droop away from sun and rain as the sunflower heads become seed heavy. Older civilizations revered the sun and used it for science and planting schedules as well as in superstition. The Teton Indians believed that “when the sunflowers were tall and in full bloom the buffalo were fat and the meat good.”
Scientists have discovered certain spiral patterns within sunflowers, which have been deemed significant. They are called Fibonacci Patterns. This pattern can be applied to experiments requiring conjecture and other reasoning that incorporates number patterns. Vincent Van Gogh enjoyed the science and the beauty of sunflowers so much that he painted 13 pictures of them. Many consider their meaning to be one of “adoration.”
Foods or Resources
Sunflowers today are used for many of the same things as sunflowers of yore were used for: food, vegetable oil, birdseed and livestock feed. Seed hulls have been used for non-food purposes for high-fiber products, but the cost is high and there is a decided lack of crushing facilities available for profitability. Sunflower oil is being researched as a diesel fuel substitute. Perhaps two of the most important uses is as a peanut butter substitute for peanut-allergic individuals and as a food in domestic food assistance programs. Although sunflower seeds are 50 percent fat, that fat is polyunsaturated linoleic acid—a good fat. Sunflower seeds are also packed with calcium and have 11 other important minerals, making it a highly nutritious snack food.
Kansas adopted the wild native sunflower as its state flower in 1903. Here is an excerpt from the proclamation:
"WHEREAS, Kansas has a native wild flower common throughout her borders, hardy and conspicuous, of definite, unvarying and striking shape, easily sketched, moulded, and carved, having armorial capacities, ideally adapted for artistic reproduction, with its strong, distinct disk and its golden circle of clear glowing rays -- a flower that a child can draw on a slate, a woman can work in silk, or a man can carve on stone or fashion in clay; and
WHEREAS, This flower has to all Kansans a historic symbolism which speaks of frontier days, winding trails, pathless prairies, and is full of the life and glory of the past, the pride of the present, and richly emblematic of the majesty of a golden future, and is a flower which has given Kansas the world-wide name, "the sunflower state": therefore,
Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Kansas: That the helianthus or wild native sunflower is hereby made, designated and declared to be the state flower and floral emblem of the state of Kansas." (Kansas Statutes, Chapter 73, Article 18, Section 73-1801).
Many organizations from professional sororities to sports clubs consider the sunflower to be their symbol, their logo that identifies their mission and ideals. This includes Cape Town, Africa’s Sunflower Fund, also known as the Friends of the South African Bone Marrow Registry, a non-government funded organization to help combat leukemia. The sunflower has grown to be a symbol of strength, hardiness and beauty. Many organizations use the sunflower emblem to convey that purpose.