Sunflowers are tall annual or perennial plants with big, bright yellow flowers. They are a summer favorite for many gardeners. Their scientific name, Helianthus” comes from the Greek word “helios” meaning “sun” and “anthos” meaning “flower.” Sunflowers can grow exceptionally tall. The record settling flower for height was 25 feet, and the widest flower was 32.5 inches across its diameter.
Archaeologist believe that sunflowers were first cultivated as early as 2300 BC in what is now Mexico, making it an early North American crop that predates corn, beans, and squash. These plants are one of the few domesticated food crops native to North America. American Indian tribes used sunflowers in a myriad of ways: eating the seeds, pounding them into flour for cakes and bread, mixing sunflower meal with other vegetables, and using the oil to make bread. Among some cultures, sunflowers were also used to treat snake bites. A medicine man would chew fresh or dried sunflower root before he sucked the venom from the wound and applied a poultice to the wound.
The Aztecs and the Sun God
The Aztecs were one of the first cultures to truly appreciate the sunflower. The Aztec name for the flower means “shield reed” or “shield flower.” They associated the bright yellow flower with the sun god, Huitzilopochtli who was also associated with war and death. The writings of a 16th century friar and missionary, Bernardino de Sahagún, described how the Aztecs would lay offerings of sunflowers and tobacco tubes onto the altar on Huitzilopochtli. They would set the tobacco tubes on fire and leave them until morning, when all of the offerings would be buried in the middle of the courtyard to ask for the god’s favor.
In addition to being holy offerings, sunflowers were also used to indicate wealth and nobility among the Aztecs. Rulers and nobles showed off jeweled sunflowers as a visible sign of their allegiance to the god, and if was a common design motif on the shields of warriors.
Sunflowers probably made the jump to Europe in the 1500s by accompanying Spanish explorers on the journey back to their homes. They slowly began to spread as an ornamental flower, but gradually people began to discover other uses for the plant. By 1716, the first patent for a device that could squeeze oil from the seed came to light in England.
While the sunflower’s popularity in Europe slowly grew, it took Peter the Great of Russia to help the craze for the plant reach new heights. He discovered the flower while on a trip to Holland. The Czar brought the pretty yellow flower home and began one of the world’s first large cultivation programs. However, despite its reputation as a beautiful garden flower, it was the sunflower’s oil that soon took Russian by storm. At the time, the Russian Orthodox Church banned most oil based foods from being eaten during the Christian celebration of Lent. Luckily for the faithful, sunflower oil was not the forbidden list, so it could be consumed as much as they wanted.
By the early part of the 19th century, Russian farmers were growing more than two million acres of sunflowers. The Russian government established a sunflower breeding program at Krasnodar, eventually significantly increasing the amount of oil that the seeds could produce. Today, Russia is still a large consumer of sunflower oil and is able to supply its population without relying on outside production. The village of Alexeyevka, where the oil was first commercialized, even prominently features the flower on its coat arms.
Eventually, the sunflower made its way back from Russian to North America in the form of new plant varieties with names like “Mammoth Russian.”
Sunflowers are one of the remarkable plants that exhibit heliotropism, which is when flowers and leaves track the movement of the sun by turning to face it throughout the day. Contrary to popular belief, only immature sunflowers follow the sun. The young plants have a specialized organ called a “pulvinus,” which can be found in the joints of stems and leaf blades. The pulvinus regulares the turgor pressure, or movement of water. This change in water pressure allows the minute movements that turn the flower with the sun.
The young plants have a routine pattern of movement. At dawn, the sunflowers face east to greet the rising sun, and then turns westward throughout the day. Overnight, the flowers reorient themselves to east in accordance to their circadian rhythm tuned to the sun. Their movement will continue even on cloudy days or if the plant is moved to a constant light source. Once mature, the plants set themselves east to catch the morning sun and the increased amount of pollinator insects as a result of the early light. They remain east facing for the rest of their life cycles.
The Water Nymph and the Sun God
This post’s story comes from Greece and tells the story of a woman in love with a god. As a quick note, the flower from the original legend is called a turnsole, which is another type of heliotropic flower, not a sunflower. However, most re-tellings substitute a sunflower because of its close association with the sun, so that’s what I chose to do too.
Clytie was a water nymph. She lived in a river and every morning she would wake up and rush from their waters with all the other neighboring nymphs to dance in the soft light of the pre-dawn morning. But when the very first ray of sunlight crept over the horizon, all the nymphs would flee back to the depths of the water. Among their people, it was the law that no nymph could see sunlight.
Clytie had always been one of the most curious of her kin. One morning, she decided to stay, just for a moment. This time when the first ray of light lit the sky, she sat and watched. Within a moment, the sun god, Helios, burst into sight. He sat on his chariot of gold pulled by four gleaming, fiery horses and crowned with a shining golden crown.
As he passed by her, Helios, joyful in his work grinned at the water nymph below him. Delight filled Clytie. She had never seen anything quite so glorious as the sun god. Her moment in the sun turned into a full day, as she watched the beautiful god track across the sky. When night came, she slipped back into her river, where her thoughts were full of Helios and his golden chariot.
One day turned into many. Clytie spent everyday watching Helios, and one day he rewarded her ardor by making her his lover. She had never been so happy as she was basking in his warm light.
Or she was… until one day, Helios passed her by without a glance. Clytie didn’t know what had happened, but she soon heard a rumor that Helios had a new lover, a woman called Leucothea. Incensed, Clytie came up with a scheme to win her beloved back. She would tell Leucothea’s father, Orchamus, about his daughter’s affair. The old man, would be so full of fury, that he would put her to death, and Helios would come running back into Clytie’s arm.
So that was exactly what she did, and Orchamus did put his daughter to death by burying her alive. However, Helios did not come back to Clytie. Instead, he was disgusted with her. The next time he passed over her former lover, he gave her a look of pure disdain. As Helios turned his back on Clytie, she felt a shadow like ice pass over her as his warmth disappeared.
Stricken with grief, she lay naked on the rocks of her river for nine days doing nothing but staring at the sun. She did not eat or drink, and without nourishment, slowly began to waste away. On the ninth day, her weakened body transformed. She grew thin and her formed elongated. Her skin turned green and grew leaves, and her head became a beautiful flower. Even today, the sunflower still turns its head to look longingly at Helios’ chariot as it speeds across the sky.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, a dwarf sunflower means “adoration,” while a tall sunflower means “haughtiness.”
In the Japanese Language of Flowers a sunflower means “respect”, “passionate love” and “radiance.”
In modern times, they often symbolize green or environmentalist ideology, and are the symbol of the Vegan Society.