by Katie Hunholz, Somervell County Master Gardener Intern
The Sunflower, a native of North America, is another plant that has a rich history of being utilized by the human race. First cultivated by the Native Americans, the sunflower was brought to Europe by the Spanish, during the early years of North American exploration. After being extensively researched and cultivated in Russia, the sunflower gradually made its way back to North America, where it continued to be utilized in the areas of food, industry, and transportation.
Originally, sunflowers were greatly valued for their use as flour in cakes and bread, and as a medicinal ointment used in the treatment of snakebites or dry skin. The stalks were used as a building material, especially useful in areas that lacked large expanses of timber with which to build housing, and in weaving baskets. The Native Americans were known to extract a yellow and black dye, which was used as a body paint, from the petals and flowers of the sunflower.
Over time, however, sunflowers became valued in many other ways, including their aesthetic quality. Not only are fields of sunflowers a vision of beauty, and the inspiration behind the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, but they play a vital role in many areas of our everyday lives. For example, sunflower oil is highly valued in the food industry as a natural source of margarine and cooking oil- often used in frying or baking. In fact, it is the only oil that naturally produces margarine with a rich, yellow coloring. The seeds of the sunflower are valued as a nutritious snack, which provide a rich variety of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids- for both humans, and birds! Despite being an expensive ingredient, due to its high demand by the cooking industry, sunflower oil has found its way into many industrial items as well- including, paints, varnishes, plastics, soaps, and detergents. It even has the potential to be used in biodiesel. The stems of sunflowers can be used in the production of paper and latex, or they can become a fibrous treat for cattle. One very unique use of the sunflower has been the use of the sunflower pith, used as a buoyancy device- such as a life preserver. In fact, the life preservers used on the Titantic were apparently filled with sunflower pith! Recently, sunflowers were even used in the process of phytoremediation- whereby toxins such as arsenic and lead, are removed from the soil.
Sunflowers, as a cultivated species, can come in various colors and sizes- usually 5-12 feet in height. The flower itself is actually made up of numerous tiny florets. Ray florets eventually develop into the petals, whereas the disc florets are the ones inside of the sunflower’s flower head, and they produce the seeds of the sunflower. A favorite of many gardeners, sunflowers are known for being drought tolerant and resistant to deer. With all of the amazing qualities of a sunflower, it is somewhat puzzling to discover that despite the sunflower’s origination being in North America, the sunflower is actually much more popular, and prevalent, in Europe. Such a useful, yet beautiful, plant deserves to be admired and preserved for future generations. Hopefully, this article will encourage you to appreciate this amazing flower, and all it has to offer- not only in the past, but so much more in our future.
- Laws, Bill. 2012. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. New York. Firefly
Books, Inc. p. 94-97.
- National Sunflower Association. (2014). Sunflower Sustainability: The substance behind the seed. (online). Available: www.sunflowernsa.com (2014, January 30).