Helianthus annuus L. (Asteraceae) which is commonly known as a sunflower is also referred to as the “happy” plant. Sunflowers symbolize adoration, loyalty and longevity. The name of the sunflower comes from a Greek origin. “Helios” means sun and “anthos” means flower. There are sixty-seven species of sunflower. These plants are native to North and South America. Early on they were cultivated by Native Americans and they were domesticated as early as around 1000 B.C.
Sunflowers are now distributed around the world and have became popular in many countries. Spanish conquistadors began to export sunflowers to the rest of the world in 1500. Sunflowers were brought back to Russia by royalty, specifically Tsar Peter the Great. Production in Russia skyrocketed when the Russians found out that sunflower seed oil was not banned during lent. The Russian Orthodox Church banned many other oils so sunflower seed oil became very popular. From there Russia began to plan 2 million acres of sunflowers each year. Canada also sparked an increase in production of these plants after creating a mechanical seed crushing plant.
The makeup of a sunflower plant is intricate. Sunflowers contain bright yellow petals that surround a large center that is filled with brown seeds. These brown seeds are not yet mature and later when they do mature they turn grey. The stem and leaves of sunflowers are hairy and the stems are thick as well. Sunflowers bloom in late August through September. The bright yellow flowers are crowded together on a flat surface and this classifies the sunflower as having capitulum inflorescence. The sunflower has hundreds, or thousands of tiny flowers and these flowers are sessile and do not have a stalk.
Sunflowers have an interesting habit of heliotropism. This means that the flowers track the sun. In the morning the flowers start facing the east and they follow and face the sun throughout the day. The only time that sunflowers do not exhibit heliotropism is when seed production starts. Heliotropism halts because the plant becomes heavier and is not able to follow the sun. Therefore, the sunflowers stay facing east through the day. To remain healthy and growing the sunflowers need six to eight hours of sun a day.
Sunflower parts have many uses for humans. Sunflower seeds are very nutritious. They contain protein, vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, nitrogen and iron. Native Americans used to use sunflower seeds to make flour by grounding them. Many birds and animals enjoy consuming sunflowers seeds as well. These seeds are the main ingredient in many birdseed mixes. Sunflower petals are edible as well. Typically, they are cooked and eaten like artichokes. Also, the petals are feed to livestock. Their roots can remove radiation from soils. This technique was used to clean up the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. Sunflower roots are utilized in herbal medicine as well to treat snake bites and spider bites. The stalks are used in production of paper and clothes and the leaves are often made into tea. This tea is used to for relieving fevers, diarrhea and for lung ailments. The tea is an astringent which means it minimizes pores, a diuretic which increases urine production and an expectorant which clears mucus.
Sunflower oil has many health benefits as well as practical applications. It can be added to soap, lubricants and candles. It is a popular vegetable oil due to having low levels of saturated fats and it can withstand high cooking temperatures. In terms of medicinal uses it can help relieve some skin conditions like hemorrhoids and ulcers. It is used as an acne treatment, lowers LDL cholesterol and helps with constipation. Furthermore, it has been said to prevent colon cancer, heart disease and reduce the symptoms of asthma and arthritis.
Sunflowers are spectacular plants with interesting pasts. They have traveled to space with astronaut Don Pettit. Sunflowers are both the national flower of Russia and the state flower of Kansas and the world’s tallest sunflower stood at thirty feet and one inch. Sunflowers are beautiful flowers and truly live up to their name as the “happy” plants.