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, 1493, and 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]
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