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The Sunflower

A sunflower rather obviously gets its name because of its resemblance to the sun, but this isn’t the only reason. It also gets the name from its behavior as an adolescent. During early stages of growth the sunflower tracks the sun across the sky in a motion known as heliotropism. This subtle movement is the plant’s way of facilitating the maximum amount of growth in the shortest amount of time. Once a sunflower matures it will no longer exhibit movement and will remain facing in one direction; almost always east. Moreover, a field of sunflowers will all face the same direction (which, you guessed it, is most likely east).

image from Lion’s Roar.

Scholars have traced the sunflower’s origin back to North America, with the first domestication of the plant in modern-day Tennessee around 2300 B.C. The earliest discovered seeds were found in Mexico and date back to 2600 B.C. Indigenous people, such as the Aztecs and Incas, associated the flower with their solar deity and thus held the flower in extremely high regard. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the sunflower made it to Europe by way of Spanish explorers. From Europe, the sunflower was imported to Russia where it soared in popularity during the 18th century. Russia was one of the biggest cultivators of the sunflower particularly for its oil; as members of the Russian Orthodox Church were allowed to consume it during Lent.

Oil production didn’t slow down, in fact the demand was so high that machinery for crushing the seed into oil were commercialized and distributed to keep up with demand. Despite their best effort, the Russian’s found out that they alone could not keep up with the global demand. Not only was the sunflower being used for oil, fields were set aside for traditional standalone seed production, ornamentals, and for silage feed. To meet such an incredible demand, the commercial production ramped up in Europe an eventually made its way back to North America.

A sunflower’s seeds are arranged on the flower in an ingenious way; a way that yields the maximum amount of seeds possible. The flower head consists of five florets that grow in a spiral motion, oriented toward one another at the golden angle, or 137.5 degrees. Typically there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other, however bigger sunflowers have 89 and 144 respectively. This pattern, which is a natural representation of the Fibonacci sequence, produces the maximum amount of seeds per sunflower head.

Growing sunflowers is quick and easy, and they are a perfect flower to plant for new/young gardeners. Sunflowers are remarkably tough plants that tend to withstand drought and heat. They really only suffer when the soil becomes too waterlogged. To accommodate all that sun-chasing growth, make sure you dig your soil deep so the flowers have a couple feet to spread their roots underground. Be aware that sunflowers need ample space above ground as well, because the plants have the ability to grow quite tall. For example, the tallest sunflower ever recorded was a whopping 30 feet tall!

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