The Brilliance of Sunflowers

No one ever gazed upon a sunflower with a heavy heart that was not turned to the sunshine. The flower’s happy inclination draws you in and changes dispositions as easily as it follows the sun. Sunflower heads naturally turn to follow the sun and this response to sunlight and its will to follow it is called heliotropism. Even on cloudy days, the flower head will move towards the sun suggesting an inborn rhythm. During the night, the growing sunflower head will return to the east in anticipation of the rising sun. It is one with the sun.

Sunflowers are a favorite of pollinators. Their brightly colored heads that rise above the landscape are beacons to birds and bees. Not only do they offer pollen but also seeds for the birds making them an extremely popular flower for promoting pollinator health.

And there is even more good news, in a recent article in Nature entitled “Medicinal value of sunflower pollen against bee pathogens,” the author writes: “We discovered that sunflower (Helianthus annuus) pollen dramatically and consistently reduced a protozoan pathogen (Crithidia bombi) infection in bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) and also reduced a microsporidian pathogen (Nosema ceranae) of the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), indicating the potential for broad anti-parasitic effects. In a field survey, bumble bees from farms with more sunflower area had lower Crithidia infection rates. Given consistent effects of sunflower in reducing pathogens, planting sunflower in agroecosystems and native habitat may provide a simple solution to reduce disease and improve the health of economically and ecologically important pollinators.” This is a tremendously important study that has real potential for positive impact on bees if we plant more sunflowers.

Native to North America, sunflowers (Helianthus annus) have been utilized by Native Americans for thousands of years for food, healing, for dying clothes, and the sunflower is the fourth sister in three sisters’ plantings of beans, corn and squash. Sunflower seeds with white stripes on them are the ones we eat for snacks. All black seeds often referred to as oil seeds are used for large scale sunflower farms that produce sunflower oil. Bred for its higher oil content, the oil seed grown commercially today is the product of Russian hybridization. While Native to the Americas, the sunflower has travelled the globe.

Here in the United States, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota grow the most sunflowers. Black oilseed varieties are planted in large scale farming as sunflowers are mostly grown for their oil, which is light in color, has mild flavor, low in saturated fat and is able to withstand high temperature. All these characteristics make it a sought-after commodity. The uses for sunflowers don’t stop there – sunflower kernels are used as a snack food. It is also made into sunflower butter and used as such – making it a great replacement for those allergic to peanut butter. Birds can’t get enough of the sunflower, and subsequently it is found in many birdseed mixes. In more recent years, sunflowers have been used as livestock feed and silage.

While Sunflowers are not grown commercially here in Maryland, there are still sunflower fields to be enjoyed. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources plants approximately 130 acres of sunflowers in 15 wildlife management areas spanning 18 of Maryland’s counties. The primary purpose of this is to attract mourning doves. Some farmers plant small plots as well to attract mourning doves for hunting. I plant a small patch myself for birds and bees. My favorite sunflower to grow is “Autumn Beauty,” as I notice it attracts goldfinches. I am trying many new varieties this year, but my most interesting will be “Arikara.”

If I haven’t given you enough reasons to love the sunflower, here’s one superhero quality you may not have known: Sunflowers soak up radiation. In the article “Millions of Sunflowers Soak Up Nuclear Radiation in Fukushima,” author Molly Carter writes about the monks of the Buddhist Joenji temple and their efforts to distribute sunflower seeds to be planted all over Fukushima.

The plants are known to soak up toxins from the soil, and patches of sunflowers are now growing between buildings, in backyards, alongside the nuclear plant, and anywhere else they will possibly fit. At least 8 million sunflowers and 200,000 other plants have been distributed by the Joenji Buddhist temple.

“We plant sunflowers, field mustard, amaranthus and cockscomb, which are all believed to absorb radiation,” Koyu Abe, the chief monk, says. “This is not the first time sunflowers have come to the rescue in radioactive situations. Many were planted around the Chernobyl site to extract cesium from nearby ponds. Residents of Fukushima today are also experimenting with planting sunflowers next to vegetables in their personal gardens, hoping they will suck up all the toxins and they can begin to grow again.” A word to describe this uptake of contaminants into plants is phytoremediation.

With 70 species of sunflowers, there are many beautiful plants to choose from. Which sunflowers to plant? Some varieties have less pollen than others. Open-pollinated varieties are more bee friendly. The University of California Master Gardeners of Napa County, California have compiled list of pollen rich varieties:

  • The Giants: Mammoth Greystripe and Black Russian
  • Lemon Queen
  • Arikara (grown by its namesake native Americans from North Dakota) Henry Wilde (tall heirloom and has long-lasting blooms with large yellow petals.
  • Autumn Beauty serves as a late summer-fall bloomer when many other flowers are spent and has lovely multicolored hues.
  • Chocolate Cherry is a deep, brownish red.
  • Evening Sun is a burnt orange.
  • Sonja is a branching plant and the blooms have dark centers and deep yellow, almost orange petals.
  • Maximillian is a perennial with lots of blooms
  • Domino’s large blooms last for more than a month.
  • Velvet Queen and Red Sun are dark beauties.
  • For roasting and eating: Giant White Seeded

Sunflowers are muses for the artistic, music composers and writers. They are subjects of poetry and study for the palettes of famous painters. In 1982 Glen Campbell performed a song written by Neil Diamond titled: “Sunflower.” Vincent Van Gogh’s famous five paintings of sunflowers in a vase were created in 1888 and 1889. One sold in 1987 for just shy of $40 million. Not alone in his fascination with the yellow flower, other artists including William Blake, Claude Monet, and Allen Ginsberg have also painted the sunflower. Ginsberg’s poem, “Sunflower Sutra,” thickly laced with corroded and desperate imagery is brightened only by the proclamation “… We’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside.” But sunflowers are not all golden, they are lemony, vibrant ruby brown and deep velvety red; they are warm chestnut, pale citrus, cherry pink, and coppery mustard. They are brilliant.

Sunflower Bars

1/2 cup pitted dates

3/4 cup old fashioned oats

1/2 cup dried blueberries or other dried fruit of your choice

2 TBS honey

2 TBS sunflower butter

1 TBS salted roasted sunflower seeds (shelled)

Line a loaf pan with parchment. Process dates (food processor) until in small pieces (forms a ball). Combine dates, oats, and dried blueberries in a bowl. In microwaveable bowl place sunflower butter and honey and microwave for about 20 seconds. Stir. Add to other ingredients and mix until evenly combined. Press into loaf pan and sprinkle with sunflower seeds. Refrigerate for about an hour or until set. Pop out onto cutting board and cut into bars. Makes 4-6 bars. Keep bars wrapped individually in parchment or wax paper. Can be stored in airtight container or refrigerator for about a week.

Sunflower bars are a tasty, all-natural treat.

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Resources and readings

Sunflowers for Bees (Master Gardeners)

Sunflower, An American Native.

Behind the Beauty: Sunflower fields impress and nourish.

Millions of Sunflowers Soak Up Nuclear Radiation in Fukushima

Vincent Van Gogh

National Sunflower Association

Fun Facts

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