By Awake! writer in Switzerland
BRIGHT, sunny days tend to cheer us up. No wonder, then, that people around the world also feel cheered by the flower named for the sun
But do you know how that friendly flower came to be so popular? Does it really turn toward the sun? And is it truly useful?
A Journey Around the World
The sunflower’s original home extended from Central America to what is now southern Canada. There, Indians cultivated sunflowers. After Spanish explorers took the plant across the Atlantic in 1510 C.E., it quickly spread throughout western Europe. At first, the sunflower was considered just an ornament for adorning botanical and private gardens. But by about the middle of the 18th century, its seeds came to be viewed as a delicacy. People back then also used its leaves and blossoms to make a tea for combating fever.
In 1716 an Englishman obtained a license to extract oil from sunflowers for use in the weaving and tanning industries. Yet, sunflower oil remained almost unknown in the rest of Europe until the 1800’s. True, the Russian Czar Peter the Great took sunflower seeds to Russia from the Netherlands in 1698. However, commercial production of sunflowers in Russia did not begin until the 1830’s. A few years later, Russia’s Voronezh region was producing thousands of tons of sunflower oil. Cultivation of sunflowers soon spread into neighboring Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and the former Yugoslavia.
Ironically, at the end of the 19th century, the sunflower was reintroduced to North America by Russian immigrants. Early settlers to the continent had not continued cultivating sunflowers as the Indians had. Today huge sunflower fields dot the landscape in countries all around the globe.
It Follows the Sun
Does the sunflower really turn to face the sun? Yes! Both its leaves and its flowers are heliotropic, that is, oriented by sunlight. The plant stores auxin, a plant hormone that controls growth. The greater quantities of auxin on the side away from the light cause the stem to grow toward the light. Once the flowers are in full bloom, however, they are no longer heliotropic but generally remain facing east.
The sunflower’s Latin name, Helianthus annuus, is derived from the Greek words meaning “sun” and “flower” and from the Latin word meaning “annual.” The flower usually grows to about six or seven feet [2 m] in height, but some giant specimens grow to more than twice that height. The sturdy stalk and rough, green leaves are crowned with a big, round flower with bright-yellow petals. These surround a dark center composed of smaller, tubular flowers. When pollinated by insects, these smaller flowers develop into the sunflower’s edible seeds. A sunflower’s center can vary from 2 to 20 inches [5 to 50 cm] in diameter and may produce from 100 to 8,000 seeds.
There are dozens of species of Helianthus, and new hybrid varieties are constantly being developed. Normally only two species are cultivated for agricultural purposes. One is Helianthus annuus, which is grown mainly for the production of sunflower oil. The other, Helianthus tuberosus, better known as the Jerusalem artichoke, is cultivated for its potatolike tubers. These are used for livestock feed and in the production of sugar and alcohol.
Most sunflowers today are grown for their seeds, which produce an excellent oil. Sunflower oil is used for cooking, in salad dressings, and in margarine. The seeds have a high nutritional value, containing 18 to 22 percent protein and other nutrients.
Many people enjoy lightly roasted, salted sunflower seeds as a snack. Flour made from the seeds is used as an additive in baking. Moreover, sunflower oil is an ingredient in shampoo, lip balm, hand cream, body lotion, and baby-care products. It is even used in the manufacture of industrial motor oil. Sunflower seeds are also used as food for birds and small animals.
A sunflower field is a paradise for honeybees
Surely, the sunflower has proved to be a valuable gift to mankind. Its beauty has inspired artistic works, such as Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Sunflowers.” Wherever it grows, the sunflower seems to transplant the sun into our homes and gardens. Its cheery face and many uses may well come to mind when we read the psalmist’s words: “Many things you yourself have done, O Jehovah my God, even your wonderful works and your thoughts toward us . . . They have become more numerous than I can recount.”