The Mighty Sunflower

In ancient times, sun worship was the dominant religion. All over the planet whole societies have come and gone, celebrating solstices and creating deities who were said to be the God(s) who made it work for the world.

Not all sunflowers are giant, but they are equally impressive. Photograph courtesy of Lori R. Bramble.

That respect is part and parcel of the name “Sunflower.” These flowers were thought to look like the sun itself, with their large centers and bright rays. True to their name, these flowers create food and other substances we, and other creatures, love.

Today there is a whole family of plants known as “helianthus,” which, quite literally, means “sunflower” (Helios was the Greek sun god).

Apollo is also remembered as the Greek sun god. While likely the Apollo/Helios confusion simply boils down to generations of people raised with verbal, rather than written lore, it’s clear no matter what that while both Apollo and Helios were credited with guiding the chariot containing the sun across the sky, only Helios was called the sun in the chariot. In other words, Apollo guided the sun; Helios was the sun.

These are mighty shoes for a flower, even a family of flowers, to fill. But these are mighty flowers.

Mathematicians are impressed with the arrangement of seeds in giant sunflowers. Children are impressed by the sheer size of the “flower.” Pollinators are impressed by the sheer number of “flowers” each bloom presents. Birds are impressed by the cornucopia of seeds provided by each and every sunflower.

Each bloom is not just one flower – it’s many, all gathered non-COVID style on one stalk. If you look closely at a sunflower – all sunflowers – you’ll see all this. Sunflowers are “compound flowers,” which are many flowers, all collected on one stalk. Placing many flowers on one stalk conserves the plant’s energy – it only has to make one stalk, which is an undertaking.

Many flowers utilize the energy saving compound approach. Sometimes they look like sunflowers, daisies or coneflowers, tiny flowers surrounded by large, colorful bracts that are simply modified leaves, not flowers at all. The actual flowers are tiny and in the center. Other compound flowers line the flowers up the stalk, like snapdragons or gayfeather. All take advantage of the energy saving “one stalk for many” and most take advantage of the ability to open each flower (often tiny) on different days, so that pollinating insects come back, day after day, to find goodies on the same plant.

It also allows for an amazing number of seeds (each flower produces its own), which is obvious once your sunflower starts producing them. Not as obvious is the precise mathematical arrangement of these seeds.

Sunflowers’ seed arrangement exhibits the “golden ratio” that some believe is God’s signature, as it’s found all over nature. Shells, stars, ants, flowers, human DNA… can exhibit this ratio. If you carefully mark out the placement of seeds in a sunflower, starting in the center, you’ll find curved lines radiating out from the center, each expressing the Fibonacci sequence where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. Count it – 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233…incredible that a plant can manage this.

Show a child a giant sunflower for the first time, very likely you’ll hear “it’s BIG!” And it is. Giant Sunflowers can be a whole foot across. The sheer size is likely to impress birds, as well. Birds grab on and munch out – that’s a whole lot of sunflower seed!

So, while being named for a star which has evoked worship all over the globe, sunflowers hold their own in the star quality.

Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.

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