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The Good Seed

They 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 considered plural.

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 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 bioterrorism.

—Tom Nattell

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