My sunflowers reveal their broad faces shyly, unfolding petal by petal. The materials to make the six foot tall plants were tightly wrapped in ½ inch seeds just two months ago. Now the hefty stalks tower overhead and the flowers droop under the weight of a new generation of seeds.
Sunflowers originated in North America and Native American tribes have domesticated and cultivated sunflowers since 3000 B.C. The seeds I planted were Hopi Black Dye. The Hopi tribe prizes the sunflower and utilizes many qualities of the plant. Hopi’s make medicinal ointment, lotions and cooking oil from sunflower seed oil. Ground seeds star in simple cakes and breads following age old traditions. A water-based dye made from sunflower seed husks create purple and black patterns on Hopi baskets and wools. Dried stalks provide a sturdy building material, and are used for fuel, fodder and feed for poultry. A plentiful bloom of wild sunflowers is believed to be a harbinger of a robust harvest season.
North American sunflower seeds carried home by Spanish conquistadors spread quickly across Europe where they were prized in gardens. Renaissance painter Van Gogh was enchanted by swaying fields of yellow and black flowers. Paintings of sunflowers dominated Van Gogh’s work while he lived near the fields in Arles, France.
The Russians first cultivated sunflowers commercially, developing two strains; a smaller, oil-rich seed, and a larger seed handy for snacking. Sunflower seeds returned home to the new world with Russian immigrants. Seed packets of Mammoth Russian sunflower sold in the United States from 1880 through 1970.
Sunflower Helianthus annuus is widely cultivated around the globe today. The Soviet Union uses seed hulls to manufacture fuel, to line plywood and to grow yeast. The seeds are pressed for oil or packaged for eating in the U.S. In China, fiber from the bulky stems is used in the manufacture of fabrics.
The wild sunflower is a common and widespread roadside weed, thriving in lower elevations throughout North America from southern Canada to central Mexico. Eight species of sunflower grow wild in Arizona where the seeds provide an important source of nutrition for a large number of birds and mammals. In gardens sunflowers attract pollinators and help pull mobile nutrients from deep in the soil.