Fun Facts about Sunflowers
A Sunflower by Any Other Name ...
Young sunflowers face toward the east in the morning and the west at sunset. Like the French word tournesol, the Spanish word for sunflower, el girasol, is very apt, meaning "turns toward the sun."
The French word for sunflower is tournesol, which literally means "turn with the sun" —and sunflowers do just that. At least the young plants do.
When their stems are supple, sunflower flower heads turn throughout the day, following the sun. As they mature, their stems harden, and the flowers eventually stop moving (MacKenzie).
The botanical name of the common sunflower is Helianthus annus.
Helianthus is derived from two Greek words, helio (sun) and anthos (flower). The word annus indicates that sunflowers are annual, only living for a single growing season. (Actually, some are perennials, but Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who gave the sunflower its scientific name, didn't know that!)
How tall is the world's tallest sunflower? It's taller than "Snowzilla," a 25-foot Alaskan snowman you can see on YouTube.
The World's Tallest Sunflower
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world's tallest sunflower was measured in 2011 at 27 feet (8.23 meters). That's as tall as most two-story houses!
The sunflower was grown in Germany by Hans-Peter Schiffer, who beat his own 2009 record of 26.25 feet (8 meters).
This sunflower isn't REALLY the world's biggest--but it is big!
Sunflowers & the Great State of Kansas
Sunflowers were first domesticated by Native Americans, who grew and harvested them thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans to North America. The Kansas River and, subsequently, the state of Kansas were named after the Kansa tribe of Native Americans.
The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas. Eleven known species grow there.
In summer and fall, sunflowers bloom throughout the Great Plains region of the state alongside goldenrod, which is a member of the same family, and other native plants ("Kansas State Flower").
Grinter's Sunflower Farm Near Lawrence, Kansas
Grinter's has been growing sunflowers since the '70s. Visitors can take pictures & even pick a few flowers! See krisgrinter.blogspot for details.
A Bouquet of Thousands—in One "Flower"
The daisy-like flower with yellow petals and a dark center that most of us think of as a sunflower isn't really one sunflower—it's hundreds of them, even thousands.
The brown-black centers are actually the flowers of a sunflower—the very small flowers.
These tiny flowers are all clustered together into one big disk-like center and surrounded, not by petals, but by ray flowers (Mackenzie).
The tiny flowers that make up the brown-black center go to seed after pollination. According to National Geographic's Edible, some flower heads produce as many as 8,000 seeds (330).
That's a lot of bird food!
More Than Just a Pretty Face
Sunflowers are grown for an incredible number of reasons.
Uses for Sunflowers in the Home Garden
Sunflowers won't kill the grass or any other plants in your garden. The idea that sunflower seeds emit a hormone that inhibits plant growth is erroneous. It's the thick layer of fallen sunflower seed shells that kills plants near bird feeders. The fallen shells act as a sort of mulch. Once you rake it up, plants near your feeders will grow just fine again.
Home gardeners sometimes cultivate tall varieties of sunflowers as sunscreens or privacy screens near patios, decks, flowerbeds and vegetable gardens.
Growing sunflowers is also a fun way to attract butterflies and bees to your landscape, and it's an easy way to feed the squirrels and the birds that visit your yard in summer and fall.
Sunflowers are beautiful additions to a cutting garden, too.
In vegetable gardens, they may be used in place of corn to provide strong, attractive supports for pole beans. And you can use sunflowers as a trellis for other climbers too. Just be sure to plant the seeds deep enough and to select hybrids with exceptionally sturdy stalks.
You can use dried sunflower stalks as kindling like the Native Americans did.
If growing sunflowers for seed, you'll probably have to cover the heads with cheesecloth or netting as they begin to dry. Sunflower seeds are prime food for birds, squirrels and white-tailed deer.
Commercial Uses of Sunflowers
The top three producers of sunflowers are the Ukraine, Russia and the European Union. They are predicted to produce a combined 23,636 metric tons of sunflower seed in 2013. The U.S. alone will probably produce 1264 metric tons of sunflower seed in the same year ("Sunflower Statistics").
While some seeds are produced for human consumption in snack foods, smaller seeds are used in commercial bird foods. And sunflower meal is sometimes used as silage for commercially grown animals.
Sunflower seeds are also a popular source for cooking oil. And the oil from sunflowers has potential use in many manufacturing processes, including the production of detergents, pesticides, adhesive, fabric softener and lubricants. It may also have potential as fuel for diesel engines (Putnam).
Sunflowers in Pots? Yes!
Dwarf sunflowers are bushy hybrids that grow from one to three feet tall and produce blooms three to five inches across (Mackenzie).
They're great for pots as well as small flowerbeds.
Varieties to try include 'Dwarf Teddy Bear,' 'Sunspot,' 'Yellow Pygmy,' 'Pacino', 'Big Smile,' and 'Music Box Mix.'
Edible: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Food Plants. DC: National Geographic, 2008.
"Kansas State Flower." 50 States.com. Marchex, Inc., 2013. Web.
MacKenzie, Jill. "Sunflowers." University of Minnesota Extension Service. Dec. 1999. Web.
Putnam, D.H. and others. "Alternative Field Crops Manual: Sunflower." University of Wisconsin Extension, 2013. Web.
"Sunflower Statistics." National Sunflower Association. National Sunflower Association, 2013. Web.
"Tallest Sunflower." Guinness World Records, 2013. Web.
© 2013 Jill Spencer