.. The sunflower turns on her god, when he sets,
The same look which she turn’d when he rose.”
- Thomas Moore
from Irish Melodies
It’s summer, and the sun worshippers are out in full glory – both human and floral. Sunflowers, the sun worshippers of the plant world, hold center stage in the summer sun. Their bright, yellow faces track from east to west constantly following their god, the sun, on its daily journey across the sky. Aptly named, the sunflower is like a mirror reflecting the golden rays of the sun in its petals.
Although the sunflower looks like one big blossom, it's actually composed of hundreds of miniature flowers or florets snuggled closely together in its velvety brown center. These florets lack the signature showy yellow petals that serve as a neon attraction to bees, butterflies and other pollen sippers and seekers. Each floret has its own stigma, ovary, style and anther, which eventually transform into an individual seed. Compacted together, they provide a soft, cushioned landing pad for visiting insects.
The first florets to open and offer their nectar and pollen are the outer ones next to the yellow petals. These are followed by their neighboring flowers, and progress gradually to the center of the blossom. As each section is drained of its pollen, these flowers begin their magical transformation into plump seeds, packed full of nutrition. The seeds are popular treats for birds, especially chickadees, goldfinches and blue jays as well as squirrels, chipmunks and even humans.
Early pioneers, with their need to be resourceful and to “waste not,” made good use of all parts of the sunflower. New tender growth on the plant was cooked and eaten like asparagus. Of course, the seeds were eaten as snacks, used in baking, and fed to the birds during the cold winter months. Leaves and stalks became fodder for livestock, and fibers from the stalk were used to make cloth, often colored with dye from the yellow petals. Oil from the seeds was used for cooking and making soap and paint. Although the superstition of planting sunflowers close to the house to prevent malaria is no longer practiced, we continue to develop new uses for sunflower byproducts.
Sunflowers are native to both North and South America. The Inca culture of Peru placed a high value on them and used them in celebrations to honor their sun god, Inti. Inca goldsmiths replicated the sunflower design in elaborate and intricate gold patterns, which participants wore or carried in their celebrations. It is the flower emblem of Peru.
The botanical name Helianthus comes from the Greek words helio meaning “sun” and anthus meaning “flower.” Helios was the Greek god of the sun. A mortal woman, Clytie, loved him. But as is common in the love stories of myths and legends, it was a one-sided affair. Helios ignored and neglected Clytie, causing her to follow him everyday like the sunflower in constant hope for his attention and love.
Sunflowers tower over their garden neighbors providing shade and relief from the sun for shade-loving plants. Their height can also be used to create sunflower playhouses for children by planting parallel rows and weaving the heads together to form a sun-dappled roof.
Perhaps its towering height and showy blossoms earned the meaning of “haughtiness” in the Victorian language of flowers. Other sources give it the meaning of adoration and devotion of “My eyes see only you,” referring to its constant” eye” on the sun as it follows its course through the sky.
Sunflowers have gone global as a symbol of sorts, an icon for the hope of a world free from nuclear weapons. After the Ukraine surrendered the last of its nuclear warheads, the defense ministers of the United States, Russia, and the Ukraine met on the grounds of a former missile base in June, 1996, to scatter sunflower seeds and to plant flowers in the hope of a world free from war.
Perhaps this hope is guided by the wisdom of the ancients in a quote from a Native American legend: “Every time you look at a sunflower, the whole world starts to smile.”