appear to be one, but they are actually many. They become
hunched over with heavy heads as fall arrives. The ones you’re
most familiar with are probably Russian, but their origins
go back to North America. The ones standing in my backyard
are from the Hopi Indians, who live in what is now northern
Arizona. The seeds of sunflowers darken in my garden as the
fall equinox passes, daylight lessens and the solar year moves
forward toward the winter solstice.
I always plant a few sunflower seeds in my garden. They’re
easy to grow, and they attract beneficial insects and produce
seeds that I offer to the hunger of backyard wildlife. But
I mainly plant them because I like to watch their rapid and
immense growth, and because there is something special about
this flower. Sunflowers seem to express a sense of wholesome
growth, cheerfulness, hope and peace.
I picked a sunflower from my garden recently and placed it
in a glass cylinder of water on the mantel over my fireplace.
It had heart-shaped leaves rising on a thick stalk to its
seed head, which had about two dozen large, bright-yellow
petals surrounding its circumference. The flower’s center,
thick with tiny protruding points, reminded me of the eye’s
retina. I took out a small magnifying glass that I keep handy
and took a closer look at this magnificent flower. This closer
look revealed an interesting deception. While we would generally
refer to this flower in the singular, in fact it should be
Looking through my magnifying lens, I saw that this flower
is actually made up of hundreds of small flowers swirling
out in a geometrical shape from the center of the larger flower.
They started out as tiny dark dots in the plant’s center;
those further from the center were thicker and barrellike
and eventually popped open into flowers. These tiny flowers
were yellow, with five brown-tinged and pointed petals that
rose, trumpetlike, outward. From some of these flowers, stamens
encrusted with a golden-yellow pollen thrust out beyond the
petals, eventually dusting the mantel with their fine powder.
From each of these petite flowers, a single sunflower seed
can be produced. Specialized flowers along the edge of the
seed head produce the large yellow petals that lead one to
accept the illusion that it is a single flower.
The story of humans and sunflowers goes back thousands of
years to the native peoples of the North American Southwest.
Archeological evidence indicates that wild sunflowers were
gathered for food and medicine there at least 8,000 years
ago, with cultivation of the plant taking place perhaps as
early as 3000 B.C. This would put its cultivation origins
around the same time as the traditional Three Sisters: corn,
beans and squash. Today, seeds representing more than 2,000
varieties of sunflowers have been cataloged by seed banks.
The early native peoples made efficient use of the plant.
Seeds were eaten raw; roasted and ground into flour for cakes,
breads, stews and soups; pressed to extract oil for baking;
and boiled into a coffeelike beverage. The plant’s tuberous
roots also were eaten. The sunflower’s nonfood uses included
dyes for textiles, body paint, oil for skin and hair, and
medicines for ailments such as snakebite and sunstroke. Its
stalks were used as a building material, and the plant played
an important role in religious ceremonies.
Sunflower history took an interesting turn when the Spanish
arrived in the Southwest. They were greatly impressed with
these tall plants that grew well in arid soil. Around 1510,
Spanish explorers brought the plant’s seeds to Spain for cultivation.
From there, the easily grown plant soon diffused throughout
Europe, where it was propagated as a garden curiosity rather
than for its nutritional qualities. When the sunflower reached
Russia, another culture’s religious practices came to influence
its evolving history.
The Russian Orthodox Church forbade the use of a variety of
foods during Lent and Advent, two important times for fasting
and penitence in their religious calendar. The Russians found
that the sunflower provided food and oil that could be eaten
without violating the fasting rules of these religious practices.
They went on to develop a sophisticated sunflower program
that bred plants for higher seed and oil production and for
increased disease resistance. The large variety known as Mammoth
Russian (aka Russian Giant), which is often grown by home
gardeners, was a product of this endeavor. Ironically, as
the Cold War kept relations between the United States and
Soviet Union frosty, Russian varieties of sunflowers entered
the U.S. agricultural mix in the mid-’60s and fostered the
rapid rise of sunflower farming in this country. Since the
’70s, vast tracts of U.S. farmland have been dedicated to
this nutritious plant.
Sunflower seeds are rich in calcium, phosphorous, potassium,
magnesium, iron, vitamins A, B1 and B2, and unsaturated fats.
They contain no cholesterol. While the seeds can be eaten,
ground into flour and pressed into oil, other parts of the
plant can also be put to use. Flowers are harvested for nectar
production, petals can be used in teas and as a colorful addition
to salads, and one variety (Jerusalem artichoke) provides
a nutritious tuberous root.
At least one organization sees a role for sunflowers in fostering
world peace. The Sunflower Project (www.sunflower project.org)
calls on people to plant sunflowers in conspicuous public
places as an act against war, pollution, violence and injustice.
According to project literature, “The simple act of planting
a seed can be a revolutionary act.” With all the Iraq-attack
madness emanating from George W. these days, there’s at least
one house in Washington, D.C., in need of a major planting.
Then again, such a planting might be construed as an act of