Sunflowers. What would a summer garden be without them? We love them for the bold and brilliant vertical accents they contribute to our gardens; their seeds we bake for tasty, nutritious snacks; and their flowers beautiful in the garden and in bouquets. Pollinators love their flowers; birds love their seeds (if we leave them in the garden). Just another pretty annual for our gardens, right? Nope.
Sunflowers have an amazing history. I recently read the book Sunflowers (The Secret History) by Joe Pappalardo. It took this plant nerd along the historical timeline of sunflowers from prehistoric times through world wars and even into space.
Native to North America, Native Americans cultivated sunflowers for many uses. The seeds were eaten as snacks, ground into flour, and squeezed into oil. Dried stalks were used in building. They also used sunflower plants medicinally, cosmetically and ceremonially.
Early explorers sent seeds back to Europe as early as the 1500’s. But it was in Russia, however, that sunflowers became a major agricultural crop. Oil was squeezed from seeds in the 1700’s, and by the early 1800’s, more than two million acres in Russia were planted with sunflowers.
Canada started growing sunflowers for oil production in the early 1900’s. Northern states in the U.S. followed suit and more than five million acres were in sunflower cultivation in the late 1900’s.
Who knew? Here are some amazing facts about sunflowers.
Wild sunflower seeds can remain viable in the soil for ten years.
The head of a sunflower is made up of up to 4,000 tiny flowers that become the sunflower’s seeds.
Fossilized poop found in caves in the southwestern United States provide evidence sunflowers were part of man’s diet 6,000 years ago.
Lewis and Clark munched on sunflower seeds while waiting at a fur-trading station for Sacagawea.
Russia found the best type of sunflower for making oil in the late 1700’s and it is still used today.
Hitler’s interest in Russia’s fields of seed-oil producing sunflowers was one of the reasons they invaded Russia in World War II.
Sunflowers became part of the space program when sunflowers were exposed to lunar soil returned from Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 missions.
Eighty-five dwarf sunflowers took a ride on the Columbia space shuttle in 1981.
Sunflowers were used to help clean up the radioactive pollution of Chernobyl. “Sunflowers removed 95 percent of the pond’s cesium and strontium within ten days,” states Papalardo.
Pretty interesting, right?
So, while we enjoy their bright and cheerful faces and the food they offer bees in the summer and birds in the winter, remember the important part sunflowers have played in the history of mankind.
Garden with me!