“Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow. It’s what sunflowers do.”
— Helen Keller
Who doesn’t love sunflowers? As bright as the sun itself, these cheerful blooms are big and bold, perfect as cut flowers or out in the yard. The National Garden Bureau has named 2021 the Year of the Sunflower… a stellar choice for so may reasons, especially as 2021 brings new hope to many.
Let’s learn about sunflowers, explore them and enjoy them like never before!
What is a Sunflower?
The sunflower belongs to the daisy family (Asteraceae) which has over 1,500 genera and more than 20,000 species. It is the biggest family of flowering plants, which also includes chrysanthemums and lettuce. The sunflower is a large inflorescence, meaning the flower head is made of tiny flowers called florets. These mini flowers grow in a spiral pattern, and after pollination, every tiny flower produces a seed.
Sunflowers are native to the United States and Mexico. Native Americans grew sunflowers as a crop, prized for their edible seeds and the flour/oil/medicine/dye that was derived from them. Indigenous American peoples saw the sunflower as the symbol of their solar deity. Explorers introduced them to Europe in the 1500s.
Why Do We Love Sunflowers? Let’s Count the Ways:
They are pollination powerhouses.
Tall and brightly colored, they are easy to see from a distance, attracting bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Sunflowers produce both pollen and nectar, making them an important food source for many species. Their broad surfaces act as landing pads for insects, and their lush foliage provides a food source for butterfly caterpillars.
Sunflowers are edible.
Humans, insects, birds and mammals all benefit from sunflowers. The flowers produce seeds that are great for snacking. Enjoy them out of hand or on top of salads. Those same seeds can be processed to produce trans-fat free cooking oil. Some livestock feed is produced using ground sunflower meal, as it’s also a source of protein.
And of course, the birds and the bees enjoy sunflowers directly from the source!
They’re just so darn cheerful!
Sunflowers are popular cut flowers. Put them in a vase, enjoy them out in the yard, bring them to a friend who needs cheering, or mix with other cut flowers in a bouquet.
The master painter Vincent Van Gogh considered sunflowers worthy subjects, even though many of his contemporaries considered the floral variety crude and unsophisticated. To the contrary, Van Gogh considered the sunflower a symbol of gratitude and featured them in several of his most famous paintings. Sunflowers and other yellow flowers were laid on his coffin at his funeral.
Sunflowers not only look like the sun, they follow it.
Sunflowers display a behavior called heliotropism. The flower buds and young blossoms will face east in the morning and follow the sun as the earth moves during the day. However, as the flowers get heavier during seed production, the stems will stiffen and the mature flower heads will generally remain facing east.
Sunflowers come in a variety of sizes and colors.
Sunflowers don’t have to be yellow! They come in a rainbow of colors from white to red. Here are a few of the newer varieties:
Russian Giant has a single yellow flower that can be as much as 20 inches across. Growing 10 to 12 feet tall, this is a great variety for seed production.
Teddy Bear is a great dwarf variety with a fluffy flower head, growing 1 to 2 feet tall. It works well in containers.
Giant Sungold is a taller version of 'Teddy Bear' that grows up to 5 feet tall.
Autumn Mix sunflowers are tall growers (6 feet or more) that give you a rainbow of fall colors on large flower heads.
Italian White sunflowers are 4-foot-tall plants with creamy white flowers that produce great seeds for the bird feeder.
Sunflowers are BIG.
As we’ve seen so far, there’s a lot to like about this cheerful flower, but its sheer size puts it head and shoulders above the rest. Typical sunflowers range 5 to 10 feet high, with blooms ranging from several inches to a foot or more in diameter. In fact, the record for tallest sunflower was set in 2014, at a towering 30 feet, 1 inch, grown by Hans-Peter Schiffer in Germany.
Need more sunshine in YOUR life?
Try growing sunflowers at home to attract pollinators to your yard and enjoy some of their healthy, delicious seeds for yourself.
Or, get the cheerful look of sunflowers with decorative items that bring color and vibrant life to your yard all year long!