by TERRY KRAMER
IF I HAD TO CHOOSE a feel-good flower it would be the magnificent sunflower, Helianthus annuus. Masses of bright flowers blanket miles of fields in the Midwest, yellow faces peering at a vast blue sky. Nodding heads of autumn colors beam in tin buckets at the farmers' market. Sunflowers pose as dramatic actors in Van Gogh paintings. Their images cover coffee mugs, neck ties and kitchen curtains. Ever facing the sun, a sunflower's beauty can make us smile and briefly forget our troubles.
Although sunflowers grow in gardens all over the world today, they hail from North America where wild forms of Helianthus annuus were cultivated by Native Americans in the four corners area of the southwestern United States as far back as 3000 B.C. For centuries sunflower seeds were ground into flour used for mush and bread. Hulls were cracked and eaten for a snack. Oil pressed from seeds was used in baking bread.
Native Americans used sunflowers for nonedible purposes also. A purple dye extracted from dark seeds was used to color fabric, baskets and body paint. Petals yielded a yellow dye. Crushed roots dressed wounds. Native American hunters looked to the sunflower as a barometer for the hunt. Sunflowers standing tall with heavy bloom promised a season of fat buffalo with good meat.
Learning from the Native Americans, pioneers eagerly consumed the seed roasted, raw or ground into meal. Seed oil made soap. Boiled hulls made a coffee-type beverage. Dried leaves were smoked like tobacco. Settlers fattened chickens on seed and fed leaves and stems to pigs and cows.
The Spanish explorers discovered the sunflower in 1500s and before long it was dispersed along trade routes in Italy, Egypt, India, China and Russia. Although Europeans cherished the sunflower as a decorative ornamental, the Russians were the ones who exploited its food value to the fullest, thanks in part to the Russian Orthodox Church. The church prohibited the consumption of oil-rich foods during the 40 days preceding both Christmas and Easter, but the newly introduced sunflower was not on the list of forbidden foods.
The Russians quickly developed the use of sunflower oil and by 1830 it was on the commercial market with more than 2 million acres of sunflowers under cultivation. In 1875 plant breeders, largely sponsored by government research programs, introduced the popular and useful variety, "Mammoth Russian," which is still in cultivation today. This 10-foot-tall giant, with a single seed head up to 15-inches in diameter and a main stem as big as a two-by-four, is a redwood tree compared to its wild North American relative with small heads and spindly stems.
The prodigal sunflower finally returned to North America in the late 1800s when Mennonite immigrants, carrying "Mammoth Russian" seed across the Atlantic, settled in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada.
"Mammoth Russian" began popping up in American seed catalogs. Farmers grew the sunflower mainly as silage crop for livestock. Sunflower oil eventually became a valuable commodity in America when World War II broke out.
Today two basic types of sunflowers are cultivated. Oil-seed sunflowers have small black seeds high in oil content and are processed into sunflower oil and meal. Non-oil seed, called confectionery sunflower, have large black and white striped seeds and are used in a variety of food products like snacks and breads. In 1997 the United States exported $260.4 million of sunflower seeds and oil. North Dakota, South Dakota and Kansas are the top three states producing sunflowers. The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas.
Most gardeners grow sunflowers for snacking, feeding the birds and cut flowers. In recent years breeders have bred certain species of Helianthus with H. annuus to developed numerous, multiheaded varieties in a wide variety of colors and forms. Burnt maroon cultivars like "Velvet Queen," "Prado Red" and "Moulin Rouge" are a far cry from the yellow single-headed "Mammoth Russian." Allergy sufferers can grow pollenless varieties like "Sunrich Lemon," deep tangerine "Sonja" and lemon yellow "Moonbright" or the ever-popular "Sunbright," whose brilliant yellow petals surround a huge, black disk.
Humongous, single-headed sunflowers like "Early Russian" at 8-foot tall or "Giganteus" at 12 feet can turn a garden into an instant forest. Dwarf varieties like the charming and bushy "Music Box" bloom in attractive colors of yellow, cream and mahogany red. The cuddly, multipetaled yellow "Teddy Bear" and "Floristan" with rich burgundy highlighted with yellow tips are ideal for small gardens, patios and containers.
While most are familiar with the annual sunflower, Helianthus annuus, it is worthy to note that there are native to North America more than 150 species and subspecies of sunflower. There is the swamp sunflower (H. angustifolius) found east of Texas and south of New York. The perennial Maximillian sunflower (H. maximiliana), named for a Prussian prince who studied native North American plants in the 1830s, grows up to 10-feet tall and produces numerous small yellow sunflowers all along the stem at the leaf axils. Then there is the sunchoke, popularly know as the Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus). It is valued by some gardeners for artichoke-tasting tubers that resemble potatoes.
To many the beauty of sunflowers is when they are in full bloom, laughing in the fields as if there weren't a care in the world. But I find a haunting beauty in them when petals have faded, when in a late autumn sky the sun glints low and harsh across the horizon, and a cold afternoon wind makes the brown, tattered stalks shiver. Flocks of small brown birds pick at crusty seed heads, now facing the soil, stem necks bent like a shepherd's crook. You won't find this beauty on neck ties or coffee mugs.
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