Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Bring me the Sunflower"

Is it me or have sunflowers grown more popular in the last few years? Their bright, cheery bold faces are everywhere. I learned that the sunflowers sold as cut flowers are specially grown hybrids. Instead of having both male and female characteristics, they have only female. This means they have no pollen and are not allergenic. Yet such hybrids still produce nectar and remain attractive to bees and butterflies. We lost some of our backyard crop of sunflowers due to a freak wind storm that came through a week or too ago. Right now there is one nine foot stalk of orange Mexican sunflowers left, propped up with a bamboo pole. The Monarch butterflies are stopping by because there are so many tall blooms. In general, butterflies love sunflowers because of their large landing area.

Russia and the Ukraine produce the most sunflowers, followed by Argentina and the United States. Kansas, where the sunflower is their state flower, then Minnesota and North Dakota are the three biggest producing states, according to the National Sunflower Association. I'd love to drive through an area of blooming sunflower farms sometime in my life. I've only seen photos.

Sunflowers have many unusual characteristics. First of all, they are heliotropic, which means that while they are budding, they turn along with the sun. Then when the flowers open, they stiffen and remain stationary. When the seeds come in, and there can be as many as 2,000 in a head, they grow in a spiral pattern. The interconnected left and right spirals patterns can be described using Fibonacci numbers, similar to the golden ratio or Fermat's spiral. Thus, the sunflower has a very efficient seed packing design. Another fascinating aspect of this tall king of plants is its ability to extract toxins. Sunflowers were planted on the Chernobyl disaster site, thus removing uranium and other toxic remains from the soil. Their bristled stems discourage plant-eating animals and also help to conserve water.

Nutrition-wise, you can't go wrong with sunflower seeds. They are a source of protein, Vitamin E, selenium, iron, zinc, antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber and good fats. I learned all this casually reading about sunflowers for this post and found myself running out to the store to buy some. No cholesterol either! I've heard of sun butter made from the seeds but have never tried any. Most commercial sunflowers are grown for their oil. Byproducts can be fed to livestock.

There are some 70 to 80 species and 2,000 varieties of sunflowers, in many shades of yellow, gold and orange. They can be invasive. When you see weedy sunflowers in the wild, they may be Jerusalem artichokes. The Helianthus or sunflower (hellos = sun/Helios was the sun god; anthos = flower) is part of the aster family. The tubers of Jerusalem artichokes (helianthus tuberosus) are edible, tasting sweet, crunchy and nutty. I tried them once in the 1970s in upstate New York, in those days when Euell Gibbons had all of us stalking wild foods.

The Aztecs used the sunflower as a symbol of their sun god. Sunflowers have also become a symbol for the concept of a world free of nuclear weapons, as per the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. But no one is more associated with sunflowers than Vincent Van Gogh. His paintings depict the flower both fresh and dried, and are surely among the most widely recognized works of art in the world. Van Gogh's friend Paul Gauguin, for whom some of the sunflower series were painted, himself created a wonderful Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, Arles, 1888. Other artists who paintings of sunflowers I admire include Georgia O'Keeffe, Gustav Klimt and Joan Mitchell.

"Bring me the sunflower crazed with the love of light." - Eugenio Montale, Italian poet and Nobel Prize winner.

Photo: Yard Sunflower, 2007 - by KAO


Monica Colson said...

One of my favorite memories from my childhood was planting my sunflower every year. My sister and I would plant one every year and it was always a competition to see whose would get the tallest, prettiest, the most seeds, etc... My parents loved gardening mostly vegetables. We planted tomatoes, many varieties, but cherry tomatoes were my favorite, bell peppers, rhubarb, lettuce, carrots and pumpkins every year. We also grew lavender. I've only tried sunflowers here in Texas once but I'm inspired to try again sometime thanks to your blog!

LoneStarLibrarian said...

Yay, Monica! Yes, sunflowers are always fun to grow. The first year I did it, I saved one of them as a dried flower, the seed head with a few dead petals sticking up almost punklike, and it sits in a vase in my study. Sunflowers always make me happy. Your parents sound like fun!