The Amazing Sunflower


The natural world around us never fails to amaze me, and because of ongoing research, there is always some interesting fact to discover. Most recently, I read an article stating that sunflowers, on a cloudy day, turn to face each other for protection because they know rain might occur and cause harm. (The article went on to assert that perhaps it would be good for humans to show the same sort of protection to one another, an assertion that seems reasonable and palliative in the world we inhabit at present. That action is in our genes and we ought to pay attention to it, the way plants and trees, who are said to have no brains, do.)

I wondered what other fabulous facts about sunflowers I could garner if I went searching. Gardeners generally know that sunflowers turn to face the sun during the day, hence the French name, “tournesol.” To actually watch fields of sunflowers in southern France as they turn during the day is a delight.

Sunflower is the only flower with flower in its name. “Helianthus,” the scientific name of sunflower, comes fromheliafor sun and anthusfor flower. There are about 70 species of sunflowers.

What makes them turn?  Both their circadian clocks and genetically-driven growth rates. This is called heliotropism(solar tracking). Special motor cells at the bases of the flower buds shrink or enlarge as they absorb water, which moves their faces towards the sun. The stems of young sunflowers grow more at night, but only on their west side, which is what allows their heads to bend eastward. 

How did sunflowers get here? Sunflowers are native to the Americas, cultivated as far back as 3000 BC.  They were brought from the Netherlands to Russia by Tsar Peter the Great and used for the only sanctioned oil during Lent, then brought back to the USA by Russian immigrants. 

Other amazing facts:They have traveled to space. In 2012, US astronaut Don Pettit brought sunflower seeds to the International Space Station. You can read his blog about his gardening process. They have a history of healing. In Mexico, the flowers were thought to sooth chest pain. A number of Native American tribes agreed. The Cherokee utilized an infusion of sunflower leaves to treat kidneys while the Dakota brought it out to sooth “chest pain and pulmanery troubles.”

What is a sunflower’s petals not?  Because the ray florets lack either of the male and female gametes, it’s a neuter flower and has lost its ability to perform sexual reproduction.  The realflower is the brown patches present on the inner sides. The florets inside the circular head are called disc florets, which mature into seeds. The disc florets have both male and female sex organs and each one produces a seed. The sunflower looks like it does in order to attract insects and birds, which pollinate it so we animals get thousands of seeds. Thank you, Big H!

How are the heads organized? The flower petals within the sunflower’s cluster are always in a spiral pattern. Each floret is oriented toward the next by approximately the goldenangle*, 137.5 degrees, producing a pattern of interconnecting spirals, where the number of left spirals and the number of right spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers.* Typically, there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other; on a very large sunflower there could be 89 in one direction and 144 in the other.  Wow! Just like everything else in our ordered universe. Kinda woo-woo. I had never really studied a sunflower head intensely before, but after reading this fact, I looked and you can see the spirals and the artistry there. So totally amazing!

What is an interesting super-power that sunflowers have?  They can remove toxins, such as lead, arsenic, and uranium, from contaminated soil. (That’s probably why nothing, not even weeds, grows on the heap of metals-imbued topsoil we received last year, with the exception of sunflowers, seeds probably dropped by birds.) They were used after the Chernobyl disaster to remove uranium, cesium-137, and strontium-90 from the soil.

A quotidian super-power:  Once the flower heads are empty of seeds, they can be converted into disposable scrubbing pads for tough jobs. Who knew? Are you going to try it?

What are sunflowers symbols for? Faith, loyalty, and adoration. They also symbolize worship and faithfulness in various religions, and are associated with spiritual knowledge and the desire to seek light and truth. Incas used sunflowers to symbolize the Sun God, and brought them to temples for worship.

The sunflower is the state flower of what state?  Kansas

How tall can sunflowers grow?Due to hybridization, some are as small as 2’ tall and some, over 10’ tall. In 16thcentury Spain the record height was 24 feet, bested in 2014 in Germany by 30.09 feet. 

For us normal gardeners, how do sunflowers grow best?  They need 6-8 hours of sunlight a day to grow their best. They like a pH 6.0 to 7.5. They require 34 inches of water annually and if cut for a bouquet, will last 5-12 days. Cut your bouquet flowers in the morning so they last longer. Most sunflowers are annuals, and can re-seed themselves if the seed heads are left for birds to enjoy during the winter. Some perennial varieties exist and will grow flowers the next season.  You can deadhead them before the seeds start to form in order for more blooms to grow, but why? You’re a better steward of nature if you let them seed for our avian friends. If you want the seeds for yourself, wait until the seeds dry completely, then cut off the head about 12-18 inches down the stem. You can put a paper sack around the stem so the seeds can be caught, or you can pick them all out yourself by hand.  Then boil in salted water for 5-10 minutes, dry the seeds on a baking sheet, and bake at 325 degrees F. for 25 minutes or so. When cool, chew and leave spit-out hulls everywhere like you did in junior high. Hahahaha!

Human uses of sunflower seeds: They are a healthy snack food, with an ability to stimulate hair growth, promote heart health, aid in weight loss, lower cholesterol levels, and affect cancer cells. They provide us with alpha-tocopherol and B6, antioxidants, carotenoids and much more. ¼ cup serving contains over 200 calories. The seeds contain tryptophan, which increases the brain’s fabrication of serotonin, which then reduces tension and creates a relaxed feeling. The choline content plays a vital role in memory and vision functions. The seeds also, because of betaine and arginine , protect against cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure. The lignans prevent heart attacks and atherosclerosis. Sunflower seeds help the thyroid gland maintain optimal metabolism. The fiber helps with digestion-related problems. They help reduce arthritis symptoms. It’s not good to eat too many, however. ¼ cup daily is about right, but remember those 200 calories.

What animals eat sunflower seeds? Besides livestock and birds, the seeds are also sought out by squirrels, chipmunks, garden mice, bears and raccoons. 

And finally, can you propagate sunflowers?Yes. Take your material from vigorous and succulent side shoots. A 4-6-inch-long stem with mature leaves and no buds or flowers will root best and produce a shapely plant. 

When I started my research, I knew very little about sunflowers, except that seeing them made me happy. That alone was enough for me until the article spurred my research. I’ve seen sunflowers all my life, yet realize I’ve taken them for granted. We do this with many mundane things, I fear. How interesting to study the commonplace and be astounded!

Here’s an addendum to spur your interest in the commonplace:  Flies have two compound eyes, each made up of 3000-6000 lenses, and a triangle of three simple eyes, called ocelli. Now, it’s your turn to find out more!

Golden angle: In geometry, the golden angle is the smaller of the two angles created by sectioning the circumference of a circle according to thegolden ratio; that is, into two arcs such that the ratio of the length of the smaller arc to the length of the larger arc is the same as the ratio of the length of the larger arc to the full circumference of the circle.

Fibonacci numbers:  In mathematics, the Fibonacci numbers for a sequence, such that each number is the sum of the two preceding ones, starting from 0 and 1. For example: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55… This appears in biological settings, such as branching in trees, the arrangement of leaves on a stem, the fruit sprouts of a pineapple, the flowering of an artichoke, and uncurling fern and the arrangement of a pine cone’s bracts. 

All of the facts presented herein were found in Wikipedia and other online sources. 

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