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Sunflower: Garden Giant

By Audrey Stallsmith

helianthus annuus

The proud giant of the garden race,
Who, madly rushing to the sun's embrace,
O'ertops her fellows with aspiring aim,
Demands his wedded love, and bears his name.

Charles Churchill, Gotham, Book I

The sunflower is HUGE, not only in size and present popularity, but in terms of its many uses. Native Americans cultivated helianthus thousands of years before Christ in the region that later became the Plains States, as well as in Peru and Chile. The Aztecs decorated their sun temples and temple priestesses with its flowers and hammered out images of those blooms--in pure gold.

Helianthus derives, in fact, from the Latin helios ("the sun") and anthos ("a flower"). Its round rayed blooms do appear to be a down-to-earth depiction of that heavenly body. And its late summer shades of gold, orange, rust, and brown provide a fitting preview of the autumn splendors to come. In Vanity Fair, Thackery described those flowers as being "as big as warming-pans, that are fit to stare the sun itself out of countenance."

The idea that the blooms turn their heads to follow the heavenly orb, however, probably derives from old descriptions of another light-lover, calendula. The sunflower is said to raise its large face when rain threatens, however!

Its flashy beauty is far from being its only asset. Native Americans ground sunflower seeds for both flour and oil. They also painted textiles and their bodies with yellow and purple dyes extracted from the plant's blooms and leaves. Although American settlers virtually ignored the gentle giant as a common weed, Europeans greeted its introduction to their shores in the 1500's with enthusiasm.

Gerard rhapsodized of one plant that "in one summer, beeing sowne of a seed in Aprill, it hath risen up to the height of fourteene foot in my garden, where one floure was in weight three pound and two ounces, & crosse overthwart the floure by measure sixteen inches broad."

He also provided an excellent description of the flower's center, writing that it "is made as it were of unshorn velvet, or some curious cloath wrought with the needle: which brave worke, if you do thorowly view and marke well , it seemeth to be an innumerable sort of small floures. . ."

The sunflower proved especially popular in Russia, since the Orthodox church allowed use of its oil during Lent-when many other fats were forbidden. In War and Peace Tolstoy speaks of fleeing soldiers "filling their bags and knapsacks with wheaten flour and sunflower seed." Russia was soon growing the plant commercially, and exporting its oil to all parts of Europe. To this day, most breads baked in Germany contain sunflower in some form.

Unfortunately most of the sunflower seeds in America still seem to get fed to our feathered friends, who know a good thing when they see it! In fact, I wish the birds would contain their enthusiasm, since they often peck out the centers of my sunflowers before the seeds even ripen.

James Duke writes that sunflower seeds contain two pain-relieving chemicals, SAM and phenylalanine. They also provide a mental lift, calm the nerves, and decrease allergic reactions--much as cigarettes do but without the nasty side-effects. So John Heinerman recommends them for smokers who want to quit.

Persons who consume lots of sunflower seeds are less likely to develop prostrate, breast, and colon cancer. According to Duke, males may be more likely to father children since those seeds are high in arginine, an amino acid often prescribed for low sperm count.

Sunflower oil contains phytosterols that actually decrease cholesterol in humans rather than increasing it, like most cooking fats do. As sunflower's turpentine odor indicates, the oil also makes a good thinner for paint and a long-burning lamp oil.

A tincture of sunflower has been used in place of quinine to treat malarial fevers. Folklore even insists that planting sunflowers around your house will keep malaria out!

All parts of sunflower have some use. Its leaves can be chopped as fodder for livestock and don't sour as quickly as the better-know corn silage does. The pith inside the plant's stems is lighter than cork and makes a good stuffing for life vests. Fiber from the stems has also been employed in paper-making. Since those stems turn hard when dry, you can allow your kids to build "log houses" with them-or burn them in your fireplace. If the latter, be sure to save the potassium-rich ashes for your garden.

The sunflower has none of the temperamentalness ascribed to some garden beauties, and will grow almost anywhere there is space and light. As Lord Lytton wrote in The Duchess of Valliere, "The sunflower, gazing on the lord of heaven/ Asks but its sun to shine."

In my opinion, therefore, this plant is better described as generous than proud. And mankind has yet to discover a fraction of what it has to offer!

Helianthus annuus image is from La Flore et la Pomme Francaises, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.