There are many types of sunflower
The most common and well-known sunflower is the Helianthus Annus. However, there are actually 70 different species in the Helianthus family, all of which are native to North and Central America. Alongside the traditional yellow sunflower, there are also red and white varieties. Sunflowers don’t always have the typical shape either – some have ruffled, fluffy blooms, like the Orange Sun sunflower.
Sunflowers in mythology & culture
In Greek mythology, the sunflower is often associated with the myth of Clytie and Helios. Clytie was a water nymph, and deeply in love with the sun god Helios. Sadly, he left her for another goddess, and it’s said that Clytie watched Helios crossing the sky in his golden chariot for days, without any food or water. Eventually, she was transformed into a sunflower, and it’s said this is why sunflowers always face the sun. Sunflowers also held significance for the ancient Inca people. They considered them a symbol for the sun, and used them as part of their worship in temples.
Sunflowers can get really tall
On average, standard sunflowers reach a height of between 6 to 10 feet, but they can get much much bigger. The tallest sunflower ever recorded was 30 feet, and needed some rather elaborate scaffolding to keep it stable. It was grown by Hans-Peter Schiffer in Germany, who had already broken the record three times before.
Sunflowers can clean the world
Sunflowers have a remarkable ability to absorb toxins, including toxic metals and radiation. Following nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, scientists planted millions of sunflowers to help the land recover Similarly, they’ve also been planted in areas with high concentrations of lead. In scientific terms, they’re ‘hyperaccumulators’ which means they can absorb much more of these contaminants than other plants. It’s believed plants develop this ability partly to make them less tempting as a snack for herbivores.
Sunflowers are incredibly useful
Sunflowers are originally from North America and have been cultivated for over 4,500 years. This is partly because the entirety of the sunflower plant is edible, so the leaves, stalks, and roots could all be used as food. In fact, sunflowers were grown as food in North America before other crops such as corn became commonplace.
In addition, sunflowers were milled to create flour, and their seeds were roasted and eaten. As is still the case today, sunflower oil was used in cooking. The oil and pigments could also be used for various cosmetic applications such as dyes, and the stalk could be used in construction. Sunflowers became popular as a decorative flower when Spanish explorers brought the seeds back to Europe in the 1500s.
Spanish conquistadors exported the flowers to the rest of the world by around 1500.
Tsar Peter the Great took some of the flowers back to Russia with him from the Netherlands where they became popular when it was discovered sunflower seed oil was not banned during Lent, unlike other oils the Russian Orthodox Church banned patrons from consuming. By the 19th century, about two million acres of sunflowers were planted in the country every year.