Ukraine’s national flower, the sunflower, is being planted everywhere this spring. Ukraine is the world’s leading producer of sunflower seeds, an ironic twist when you consider that the sunflower is native to the North American plains and was originally cultivated, as long as 4,500 years ago, by the Indigenous peoples who lived there.
What we think of as a sunflower is a far cry from its original form, that of a bushy plant with multiple heads just a few inches across, much like California native sunflowers. It was left to tribes in New Mexico and Arizona, such as the Hopi, to develop the single stem, single flower plant, long before Europeans arrived here, that we are familiar with today.
The peoples of the Southwest ground up sunflower seeds into flour to be used in baking bread and cakes. Seeds were roasted and consumed as a snack, either by themselves or mixed with other seeds, grains, and nuts. Meanwhile, oil extracted from the seeds was used for cooking or as sunscreen, while the anthocyanin pigments on varieties with purple seeds were made into blue, purple, and red dyes.
Although sunflower seeds were taken back to Europe by Spanish explorers in the mid-1500s, sunflowers on that continent were used primarily for ornamental purposes, and their seeds consumed almost exclusively for their medicinal, anti-inflammatory effects.
Two hundred years would pass until the sunflower came into its own as a commercial crop for the food and oil value of its seeds. And this happened for a religious reason. In the early 1700s, the Russian Orthodox church issued a diktat prohibiting the use of butter, lard, olive oil, and a variety of other fats and oils during the 40 days of Lent. Since sunflower seed oil was not banned by the diktat, farmers began to grow sunflowers to supply this annual need for cooking oil. Slowly, land was turned over entirely to sunflowers so that, by 1800, there were two million acres planted to sunflowers in Ukraine and Russia. Eventually, two major strains of sunflowers developed, based on seeds being eaten or used for their oil. It turns out that sunflower oil is a preferred vegetable oil due to its unsaturated fats and, especially, oleic acides that help increase good (HDL) cholesterol.
In the late 1800s, the ‘Mammoth’ sunflower cultivar, growing up to 14 feet tall, was developed in Russia. Its flower head was a foot across and contained between a thousand and two thousand seeds. Some of these seeds were brought to the United States by Russian immigrants and, before long, American farmers were planting ‘Mammoth’ sunflowers too. The circle was now complete as the sunflower had traveled from North America to Russia where it was hybridized and improved, before being brought back to what was now the United States of America as a crop of commercial value.
Attached to the mother plant, an individual sunflower lasts from two to four weeks before it fades. But bushier, usually dwarf varieties, will produce sunflowers throughout the growing season, from spring into late summer. These are often grown in containers and used as cut flowers.
When detaching a sunflower for a vase arrangement, cut the stem at an angle. Before placing the stem in water, make sure to remove all leaves that would be submerged. Leaves underwater on any cut flower stem are likely to be smitten with water mold that shortens the life of the flower above. The sunflower’s greatest enemy is desiccation so make sure you place it in a vase with ample water.
On a daily basis, cut off a small piece at the bottom of the stem, always at an angle, to extend the life of your sunflower. Add a floral preservative for good measure. You can make preservative yourself by mixing 1/4 teaspoon of citric acid, available in drug stores, in a gallon of water.
If you find squirrels are eating your sunflower seeds, keep in mind that the best squirrel deterrent is a pet cat, and secondarily, a pet dog. If you are petless, consider placing squirrel deterrent substances around your sunflower plants. There is anecdotal evidence that mothballs, peppermint oil, coffee grounds and cayenne pepper have a deterrent effect on squirrels, as does the ammonia in used cat litter. Once the seeds have formed, you can simply cover each sunflower in a paper bag to keep squirrels and birds away until the seeds are ready to harvest.
Although endemic to the Great Plains, the sunflowers most commonly grown for their edible seeds were hybridized in Russia, whose steppes mimic the Great Plains in terms of soil and climatic conditions.
The most common edible varieties are ‘Mammoth’ or ‘Mammoth Russian.’ ‘Russian Giant,’ ‘Kong,’ ‘Giganteus,’ ‘Jumbo,’ and ‘Giant Gray Stripe,’ and ‘Paul Bunyan hybrid’ are other popular varieties. There are a large number of heirloom sunflower varieties, including the Mammoth types, meaning their seeds grow into specimens that are replicates of the mother plant. Forty heirloom varieties are available through edenbrothers.com.
The sunflower is recommended as a pollinator plant due to its large central disc that serves as a comfortable “helipad” for bees. However, if you are allergic to pollen, there are also sterile, pollenless types that you can grow. In fact, most of the several dozen cut-flower varieties, available in lemon yellow, ivory, orange, bronze, and red are pollen-free. These are usually dwarf types that only grow two to four feet tall, which are recommended for either garden or container growing. Their flowers, however, are stiff or upright, as opposed to the relaxed or drooping flowers of the taller varieties.
Sunflower seeds can be germinated either in or out of the shell, although shelled seeds will sprout more quickly. You can germinate store-bought sunflower seeds as long as they are not roasted and you can sprout sunflower seeds from birdseed mix but, in this case, they should still be in the shell.
In the 1880s, Van Gogh painted sunflowers in Arles, France. Most of the sunflowers on Van Gogh’s canvases are a mutant double-flowered type. Their pompom heads resemble chrysanthemums, which are sunflower cousins. You can find seed packets of ‘Sungold’ sunflowers for purchase on the Internet. It’s a double-flowered variety that could have stood in a vase in Van Gogh’s studio.
If you are looking for flowers to match the height of the tallest sunflowers, consider tree dahlias (Dahlia imperialis). They grow up to 20 feet tall with lavender-pink blooms. Tree dahlias are perennials that are cut back to the ground on an annual basis, so that their twenty feet of growth happen in a single season. ‘Bloomfield Courage,’ a weeping red rose, can be trained to grow up to 20 feet tall with adequate support. The sight of this plant in full bloom, with several thousand roses opening up in unison in the spring, is beyond compare.
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