Native Sunflowers

© Susan Wittig Albert

Our common sunflower is uncommonly beautiful this year, after two years of drought here in the Hill Country. This native sunflower is Helianthus annuus--native, that is, to the Americas, although it has now traveled around the planet. (I’ve been reading Charles Mann’s wonderful book, 1493and appreciating more than ever the global migrations of native American plants.) Sunflower seeds went to Spain with the Conquistadors in the 1500s, where the edible seeds and the oil became an immediate hit. And from there, everywhere.

But sunflowers are truly native to our hemisphere.The plants were likely cultivated first some 5,000 years ago in Mesoamerica and came to North America somewhat later, traveling a route similar to that of maize. The Aztecs and Incas used the blossom as the symbol of the sun god (one name for it translates as “big flower that looks at sun god”). Some researchers argue that the invading Spaniards tried to suppress its cultivation because it was associated with sun worship.

If sunflowers like your garden, they’ll hang around. The plants readily reseed, especially in disturbed soils–like the back corner of our pasture near Cypress Branch, where the feral hog (we’ve named him Black Bart) likes to knock down the plants, eat the seeds, and root up the soil. With this generous help from Black Bart, the plants are thick there this year, well over ten feet tall and topped with large flowers. You’ve probably heard that the blossoms follow the sun (heliotropism), but this turns out to be only partly true. The leaves and buds do turn, from east to west), but the mature flowers face east, toward the rising sun.

We’ll have a substantial harvest of sunflower seeds this year, and I’ll use some of them in salads and, roasted, as healthy nibblers. The flower petals are edible too, and add a bright touch to salads and desserts (don’t eat florist sunflowers–they may have been sprayed). But the plant had many uses besides food. Native Americans used the flower heads to brew a tea to treat pulmonary ailments and malaria; a leaf tea was brewed for fevers. Leaf and flower poultices treated burns. The crushed root was chewed and applied to snake and spider bites and blisters. It was considered a powerful aphrodisiac, as well.

In contemporary times, contemporary uses. Sunflowers have been used to soak up radioactive materials after nuclear accidents. The stalks are being studied as a source of cellosic ethanol.The seeds are fed to livestock. The plant is a source of latex and could be used as an alternative to other natural rubber.

The sunflower: an all-round handy plant to have in case of a minor emergency. And lovely to look at, too. No wonder it was considered sacred.

Reading note: Beyond the recognition of the great cultures due these early peoples [of the Americas], there are very real lessons that we can learn from them. As we deal with our modern-day issues of global warming and as we evaluate and examine what crops will survive and thrive in warmer climates, the ancient Aztecs might have some valuable lessons to teach us — and the descendants of the Aztecs may have valuable sunflower seed stocks to help improve our modern agricultural capability.–David Lentz, professor of biological sciences and executive director of the Center for Field Studies in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Cincinnati (UC), in “Ancient Sunflower Fuels Debate About Agriculture in the Americas”

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at Lifescapes, by Susan Wittig Albert]

© 2012, Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    There are so many in the pastures this year, Donna, that I think the critters are going to be well fed for a while! They’re growing especially well in one back corner, where the wild pigs rooted up the soil. Interesting how nature works together…and yes, here, feral pigs have been an introduced component of our ecosystem since our county was settled in the 1850s.

  2. Mary Pellerito says

    The deer love our sunflowers. We get flower buds and that is all. So I try to plant lots of seeds all around the gardens so we can hopefully get a few blooms.
    Mary Pellerito recently posted..Weather

  3. says

    Mary, the deer love my garden sunflowers too–just when they started to bud, the deer nipped them off and then grazed them to the ground. They do the same thing with the Jerusalem artichokes (in the sunflower family). But they don’t seem to graze the native sunflowers, I think because the stems are too tough.
    Susan Albert recently posted..July Book Update

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