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Most recognized for their bright gold petals and brown heads, sunflowers command attention in the garden with their color, elegance, and charisma. Here’s what you need to know about sunflowers, what makes them so special, along with their historical significance, symbolism, and practical uses today.
Native to the Americas, sunflowers belong to the Helianthus genus of the Asteraceae family. Its botanical name comes from the Greek terms helios which means sun, and anthos which translates to flower. As composite plants, they’re made up of ray florets and disk flowers, which can be found in the center of the flower’s head.
While they’re best known for their sunny yellow petals, sunflowers can also be seen in deep burgundy hues, chocolate browns, oranges, and whites, as well as bicolors and striped varieties. For instance, the ‘Helios Flame’ features reddish brown and gold blooms, while the ‘Moulin Rouge’ boasts its chocolate-colored flowers. Also, the coconut ice sunflower is loved for its white petals and dark brown heads.
Depending on the variety, sunflowers can grow between 3 to 15 feet tall. Some of them look adorable in vases, while gigantic ones are best for gardens and borders. The common sunflower is most recognized for its rough leaves and hairy stem. In most regions, they’re cultivated as ornamental plants in the gardens, as well as a food source.
Did you know that the heads of these flowers follow the sun throughout the day from east to west, hence the name sunflower? The French term for the bloom is tournesol, which means turned sun. During the night, they slowly turn east so they can always face the sun in the morning. In science, their movement is called heliotropism.
Sunflowers in Greek Mythology
Have you ever thought that the sunflower was once a beautiful girl? That’s how the Ancient Greeks explained its origins.
A Greek water nymph named Clytie fell in love with Apollo, the young sun god. She always stared up at the sky to get a glimpse of him, hoping that he would love her back.
Unfortunately, Apollo was in love with someone else and didn’t show interest in Clytie. The nymph became depressed for a long time and refused to eat and drink. She was lovely and had big brown eyes and golden hair, but she eventually turned into a beautiful flower.
Some variation of the myth says that the other Greek gods saw her sadness and hopelessness, so they decided to turn the nymph into a sunflower, so she could always look at Apollo without pain. Other says that the sun god became impatient with Clytie, so he turned her into a sunflower.
Meaning and Symbolism of the Sunflower
Sunflowers have gained several meanings throughout history. Here are some of them:
1. Devotion and Loyalty
Due to their loyal following of the sun, sunflowers are associated with deep loyalty and devotion. In 1532, the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro stated that he had seen the Incas of Peru worshipping giant sunflowers. The Aztec priestesses carried them in their hands and wore sunflower crowns.
2. Peace and Hope
Sunflowers have played a huge role in the aftermath of nuclear disasters, where they have been used to extract radioactive agents. As a result, these flowers have become a symbol of a world free of nuclear weapons. Before the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, Ukraine had an arsenal of nuclear weapons, but after the tragedy, all of those were dismantled. It became a nuclear-free country in 1996, and Ukrainian ministers planted sunflower seeds as a symbol of peace and hope. As an old Maori proverb says, Turn your face toward the sun and the shadows will fall behind you.
3. Ambition and Inspiration
These blooms in general represent pure and lofty thoughts. In certain ancient religions, they also symbolized spiritual attainment. It’s also thought that the sunflower will fulfill your wishes when you cut its stalk during sunset while making a wish.
4. Power and Pride
Due to their regal appearance and tendency to stand out among other flowers, sunflowers are associated with pride and power. They’re sometimes called Corona and Queen of Annuals.
5. Healing and Strength
Sunflowers are associated with vitality due to the old superstition that a necklace of sunflower seeds would protect the wearer against smallpox. Many believe that the imperial family in China ate sunflowers in hopes of gaining immortality.
6. Other Meanings
In some contexts, sunflowers also symbolize good luck. However, they also have some negative associations such as unhappy love, haughtiness, and false appearance or riches.
Here are the special meanings of the sunflower according to its variety:
Giant Sunflower (Helianthus giganteus)
Sometimes referred to as the Tall Sunflower, this variety symbolizes splendor, intellectual greatness, as well as pure and lofty thoughts. They’re associated with wisdom and wishes. In some cultures, they’re believed to have the magical powers of health, fertility, and happiness.
Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
This variety of sunflowers represents an optimistic outlook in life and has been used in healing rituals. However, they’re not related to the city of Jerusalem. It’s thought that the early settlers in the Americas carried the flower’s roots to plant, and regarded the New World as their New Jerusalem. In some regions, they’re also called Sunroot, Earth Apple, and Sunchoke.
Uses of Sunflower throughout History
Sunflowers are more than just decorative plants, as they have been used for food, oil, dye, and medicine for centuries.
1. In Gardening and Industrial Uses
The petals of sunflowers have been a common source of yellow dye, while the seeds produce black or blue dye. Sunflower oils are utilized as a lubricant in paints and soaps. In some regions, certain varieties are even used to produce alcohol and fructose.
Did you know sunflowers are a natural decontaminator in the environment? They can eliminate lead, uranium, arsenic, and other toxic heavy metals from polluted lands, as well as purify the air and make water supplies safe again.
According to experts, the plant simply absorbs the radioactive contaminants because they mimic some of the nutrients it needs, such as calcium and potassium. As mentioned above, sunflowers have been used to soak up radiation from the sites of nuclear accidents, especially at Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan.
2. In Gastronomy
The early Native Americans grew sunflowers as a food source, particularly the Jerusalem artichoke for its edible tubers, which can be eaten raw, toasted, or baked. The petals of sunflowers are often incorporated into sandwiches, salads, and pasta. In some regions, the whole sunflower head is grilled and eaten like corn on the cob!
Sunflower seeds are a great substitute for nuts, especially for people with allergies. They’re commonly seen as toppings on ice cream, and cakes, as well as ingredients in pastries, spreads, soups, and savory dishes. Sunflower oil contains vitamins A, D, and E, as well as iron, potassium, and calcium. For table use, it’s regarded as equal to almond oil or olive oil and is one of the most popular varieties of cooking oils.
3. In Medicine
A tonic made from sunflower petals can be used to treat colds, coughs, asthma, and bronchitis, while the seed in general helps to boost the immune system. It’s also thought to have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, which makes it a natural remedy for arthritis.
4. In Magic and Superstitions
In some cultures, they’re thought to bring good luck, make wishes come true, and provide protection. Some plant the flowers in their garden and eat their seeds in hopes of boosting fertility. There’s also a belief that sleeping with sunflowers under your pillow will let you know the truth you’re seeking through your dreams.
In wish magic, a girl must place three sunflower seeds on her back, so she’ll be able to marry the first boy she meets. In rituals, these blooms are commonly placed on the altar to expand one’s sense of integrity. Native Americans have the tradition of putting bowls of sunflower seeds on the graves of their loved ones as a tribute.
The Sunflower in Use Today
Since they follow the sun, sunflowers are best planted in sunny areas, such as garden borders. These flowers also make for excellent floral centerpieces. Just be creative and place these blooms in antique jars, or even complete the sunny theme with citrus fruits.
For summer occasions, sunflowers will bring a splash of vibrant color, making them ideal for flower arrangements and bouquets. While they might seem a bold choice for a bridal posy, they can be incorporated into wedding decorations and centerpieces, especially if yellow and earthy-toned hues are your wedding colors. In bohemian weddings, they’ll look ethereal when paired with other wildflowers.
When to Give Sunflowers
Since the bloom is associated with healing and strength, sunflowers make the perfect get-well-soon gift. In other cultures, sunflowers are thought to bring good luck, so they’re an ideal present to encourage those starting a new business or career.
As cheery flowers, they’re a great choice for birthdays, graduations, and baby showers. Sunflower bouquets can be given to anyone you admire in your life, as their symbolism tends to suit most occasions and receivers. Whatever the occasion, the bloom will surely radiate joy and positive vibes.
Throughout history, sunflowers have been known for brightening up a scene of desolation. Nowadays, sunflowers will not only add a healthy dose of summer sunshine to your landscape but also bring happiness and positivity to your life.