Loved by bees and butterflies, painted by revered artists, and treasured by summer gardeners, the sunflower plant (Helianthus annuus) is truly an American favorite. These solar worshipers turn their buds towards the morning sun in the east, and the setting sun in the west, which is why it is easy to understand just how the sunflower got its name. Does this Spark an idea?
According to North American history the common sunflower dates back to 3000 B.C. Archeologists have found evidence that sunflowers were grown by natives living in the Ozark Mountain area, which took advantage of the seedy flowers’ rich supply of oil, and utilized the seeds as a tasty snack. Cultivating of the sunflower plant continued to expand throughout North America, and crops covered much of the Plains areas of the United States. With the help of trade and exploration, the sunflower made its way into other parts of the world, most notably Russia. The Russians embraced the sunflower, using the oil as a main staple in many of their recipes. In fact, the sunflower was so popular in Russia that the country quickly became the largest harvester of sunflower crops. Even today, Russia still ranks highest in the production of sunflower oil, with the United States ranking second.
Best identified by its big, yellow head, the bud of the sunflower is actually two flowers wrapped up into one. The middle of the large bud is filled with disk flowers, and it is within this area that the seeds are protected. The outer edges of the head are comprised of ray flowers, which add an additional burst of color to the flower, and further dramatize its size.
Although there are different species and hybrids of sunflowers, commercially grown plants usually fall into two categories which are the oil seeds, and the non-oil seeds. The non-oil seeds are the large, black and white striped, snack favorites. The seed oil variety of sunflowers contain tiny, black seeds that are used in manufacturing to produce sunflower oil. These black-seeded beauties can also be ground up to produce sunflower meal, commonly used in livestock feed.
If you have an interest in growing your own sunflower plants, you may want to investigate the different garden varieties, and also consider your location and amount of yard space. For instance, the largest common sunflower plants, known as Mammoths, will require you to plant them in an area that can provide 3 to 4 feet of space between each of the plants. But keep in mind, even those that live on smaller properties and in apartments can enjoy sunflowers. Miniature breeds can be planted in pots and kept on outdoor terraces, or on sunny window sills. The general care instructions for all of the varieties of sunflowers are the same. Plant the seeds in the spring, offer them as much sun as possible, and keep the soil moist at all times.
The seeds that the sunflower naturally provides are a healthy snack choice, and the fact that they taste great is an added bonus. And thanks to their high concentration of vitamin E, sunflower seeds provide the body with a beneficial antioxidant that helps to neutralize free radicals and assist in the maintenance of cardiovascular health. Sunflower seed also contain anti-inflammatory elements which can help to reduce the uncomfortable symptoms faced by asthma and arthritis sufferers. And yet another reason to grab a handful of sunflower seeds is the added benefit of lowering cholesterol. Yes, it is true. The oil in sunflower seeds contains phytosterols, compounds that can help keep cholesterol low and also reduce the risk of some cancers.