No need to figure out why helianthus annuus is called "Sunflower". There it stands high above all the rest like a great, glowing sun. Yes, helianthus annuus is a flower; but, such a flower! It has more interesting properties and values than most others.
Although it may appear so, helianthus annuus is not a flower as much as a showy flower head that will always direct itself toward the sun. This response is part of phototropism.
When the sunflower moves about to follow the rays of the sun, this movement is known as heliotropism in a circadian rhythm that is completed in a 24-hour cycle.
The helianthus annuus is comprised of a diploid genome which gives it one chromosome from its mother and a second from its father. From the scientific point of view, although helianthus annuus is diploid, comparatively it has 17 base chromosomes and has the potential for as many as 3 1/2 billion base pairs of chromosomes. By comparison to certain mammals and humans, this is slightly larger.
Mathematically, sunflower florets present another opportunity for study. Interestingly enough, the sunflower possesses florets in its cluster that form spirals at angles right and left related to Fibonacci numbers.
It's history is like a winding path. Native to Central American soil and tropical sun since the dawn of time, credit for domesticating what was once a wild flower goes to ancient Mexico. Just imagine acres and acres of unbridled sunflower plants growing wild and free swaying gently in the breeze. By all appearances, it would be similar to a thousand suns illuminating the earth.
Description and Characteristics
Sunflowers are annuals of the asterales order. Plants labeled "annuals" basically means that at the end of their growing season, they wither and dry as their seeds fall or are carried off by birds. This may account for the reason domesticated sunflowers grow in Canada, Spain, Italy and Holland.
Sunflowers seeds propagate well so long as they have sufficient sunlight and water. The ancient Mexican culture recognized early on that sunflowers had certain properties advantageous to good health. Clearly, this is borne out by the fact that the sunflower internalizes large amounts of sunlight during its growth. Sunlight is a source of Vitamin C. Thus, sunflowers are recognized for this particular property.
How To Recognize A Sunflower
There are several distinctive characteristics that identify a sunflower:
- A bright gold fringe of outer petals
- A large circular inner "face" of clustered florets that can be red, brown or darker gold
- Large pale green leaves
- A long, slender stalk that can grow to six feet or more
- Bees sidling up to sunflower nectar
- Birds hovering about waiting for the first signs that seeds have begun to form
For Sunflower Lovers
A wall of sunflowers growing in a garden presents a scenic view for the length of a growing season. Sunflowers need space to grow. For creative gardners, this is a great opportunity to design gardens around the prominent sunflowers for best effect. Avoid growing flowers that vines or tendrils that need to climb. This type of competition for moisture and soil reduces sunflower growth.
Relative to a sunflower's bowing toward the sun, this bright buoyant flower became a symbol of adoration. In the earliest cultures, Mayan, Inca and Aztec, the sunflower represented a symbol of the sun. Even its genus name, helianthus, references the Greek Sun God, Helios. The great Greek philosopher, Homer, referred to Helios as "Titan" in his Homeric works.
The sunflower may well be one of the "titans" of the floral world. The size of both the sunflower head which can grow to four feet in width and its titanic stalk that may average six feet gives rise to its fame and cultural significance. However, there have been many zealous sunflower lovers who have grown sunflowers as tall as twenty feet with a "face" of two feet or more in diameter.
Cultivation and Care
Sooner or later a gardener's fascination with sunflowers leads to plans to add them to their garden. Look for the sunniest spot as the first priority. Sunflowers tolerate a sandy soil with good drainage although they much prefer a rich soil for faster (and taller) growth. When it comes to size, choose seeds according to size preference.
Plant seeds directly into the soil after the last frost. Smaller-sized sunflowers can be grown in pots for those who love a bright flowering plant on their windowsills. Just remember that the windowsill must have lots of high dense sunlight for potted sunflowers to flourish.
Gardeners today can take advantage of the wide variety of sunflowers that range in colors from Italian white, Aztec gold, pale yellows and variegated shades of orange, red and yellow. Mexican sunflowers do well in dry climates as they are largely drought resistant. By hybridizing sunflowers, a wider range of species are available.
Diseases and Pests
Sunflowers are less affected by insect damage and don't require as much maintenance. There is an old saying, "So long as the sun shines overhead, no harm can come to my sunflower bed." Children are always fascinated by sunflowers.
Allowing children to grow them is good exposure to the science of this particularly unusual garden species. Children can learn about the basics of the sunflower genus to give them a better understanding of ecology and environment.
Given the beauty of sunflowers, it was a natural next step for painters and photographers to use sunflowers as a subject for their artistic creations. One of the most famous of these is the Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh's 1888 still life, "Sunflowers".
Van Gogh so prized sunflowers as a subject of his works that he created an entire series based upon these blooms. Sunflowers were also part of another scene in the now famous movie, "Dr. Zhivago", based on the novel by Boris Pasternak. In this symbolic scene, sunflower petals slowly fall from a vase filled with these flowers as a symbol of time passing.
It's fortunate for chefs and cooks today that we have learned much about the uses of sunflowers as a culinary asset. History shows that sunflower in the Mexican culture are known as "tithonia" and that the seeds are often used in recipes or as a kind of appetizer when seasoned with garlic, chili, cumin and bits of jalapeno.
In early European countries, sunflower seeds were dried to create flour for breads and pastries. Today, it is well-recognized that sunflower oil, seeds, pastes and flour are among the healthiest substitutes for the traditional white flour and animal fat oils. Dried sunflower seeds are often lightly salted, baked and eaten out of hand for a quick snack.
Sunflower oil has also been a main ingredient in many recipes for generations. It has largely replaced oils and animal fat-based shortenings. Sunflower oil is lighter in color than some vegetable oils. However, it ranks higher in nutrition value and is appreciated by professionals chefs as a substitute in recipes calling for shortening.
Click thumbnails to see pictures: