Plant Profile: Sunflower

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), syn. common sunflower
Family: Asteraceae

Image from La Flore et la Pomone Françaises, by Jean Henri Jaume Saint-Hilaire (1828-1833). Missouri Botanical Garden,

The sunflower is an annual with a bright yellow flower that grows on a thick, hairy stalk covered in rough, coarsely toothed leaves. The stalk itself can grow up to 12 feet and the flowers can be over 6 inches wide, so the plant is very large. In gardens, people plant it to create shade for other plants. It is important to note that the flower is made up of two different kinds of flower heads that are arranged to form what we see as the giant flower. The brown disc flowers that make up the center of the flower serve a different purpose from the yellow ray flowers.

The plant, a native to the American continent, was first domesticated by the Native Americans. They had many uses for the plant, many of which were food-related. Seeds were either ground into flour for bread or roasted and cracked for a snack. The Native Americans had also discovered a process for getting the oil out of the seeds and this oil was very useful both for cooking and for beauty as hair oil. They used the rest of the plant as well. The stalks were dried and used for building houses, the yellow ray flowers were pressed for dye, and other parts of the plant, when dried and powdered, were a useful cure for snakebite.

Sunflower stalks that were removed from their TJ Demo Garden bed on September 24, 2011.

In 1716, Europeans discovered a way to press the oil from the seeds in large quantities and had created a domesticated plant with very regular breeding tendencies. American colonists, with the seeds from European plants, learned this process and were able to make the oil themselves. This oil is unique in many ways. With a chemical structure similar to olive oil, it burns longer than any other vegetable oil. The sweet, yellow liquid is used also for lubricants in machinery and in art supplies. One acre of land yields about a gallon of oil, so it does take a great amount of land to make a substantial amount. Colonists also used the oil-cake, the residue left after pressing the seeds. Sunflower oil-cake was fed to livestock because of the nutrients it contains. Additional oil can be pressed from the oil-cake, but this oil is much thicker and not of as high a quality. Colonists used this unrefined oil to make candles and soap.

Two cheerful TJDG sunflowers pose for a picture in mid-July.

The seeds of the sunflower are not only used for oil, however. They can be eaten raw or roasted. Like coffee beans, they can be brewed into a drink. Colonists ground them into flour and nowadays they are creamed into butter. The seeds also have expectorant and diuretic properties, so they are often found in modern medicines. For a while, they were used as a substitute for quinine to prevent malaria. More recent studies have found that the plant (especially the seeds) contains histamine, a chemical found predominantly in people suffering from leukemia. The plant is now used in cancer research.

The stems, bruised seeds, and leaves have been used as cattle feed. However, it is not only animals that eat other parts of the sunflower. The colonists considered them very good food. In John Gerard’s book, Herball (1597), he wrote, “the buds before they be floured, boiled and eaten with butter, vinegar and pepper, after the manner of artichokes, are exceedingly pleasant meat … the stalks broiled upon a gridiron … have a like property” (quoted in Leighton, Early American Gardens, 401).

Really every part of the sunflower is used for something. The stalk is made of a super light substance that can be found in lifesaving devices. Fibers from the same part as well as from the leaves are used for paper. Pressed yellow flowers, when ground into a similar pulp, are still used for dye. In conclusion, the sunflower is far from an ordinary ornamental plant. Rather, there are many currently known practical applications of its parts and more are discovered regularly.

–Natalie Johnson, UVa Class of ’15

Sources consulted:
Atal, C.K. and B.M. Kapur. Cultivation and Utilization of Medicinal Plants. Jammu-Tawi, India: Regional Research Laboratory, 1982.
Booth, Charles O. An Encyclopedia of Annual and Biennial Garden Plants. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1957.
Grieve, Maud. A Modern Herbal. Darien, CT: Hafner Publishing Co., 1970.
Leighton, Ann. Early American Gardens: For “Meate or Medicine.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970.
National Sunflower Association, “History of the Sunflower,” (accessed October 2011).

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