Life

FORTE: Sunflower trivia for the long weekend

Theresa Forte

By Theresa Forte, special to Postmedia News

Sunflowers are magnets for bees. (Theresa Forte/Special to Postmedia News)

Sunflowers are magnets for bees. (Theresa Forte/Special to Postmedia News)

A humble cornfield, edged with golden sunflowers, offers a cheerful welcome to cottagers along the shores of Lake Huron near Port Elgin, Ont.

I admired the display from the car window on the drive in and out of the cottage, finally I had to stop in for a closer look. Despite the gloomy skies and unseasonably cool temperatures, I had to smile — sunflowers have that effect.

As we head into the Labour Day weekend, I’ve scoured my sources for interesting facts and figures about sunflowers, it turns out they’re more than just a pretty face.

The name sunflower or Helianthus, comes from the Greek Helios (sun) and Anthus (flower), the French name, Tournesol, means ‘turns with the sun,’ alluding to the flower buds’ habit of turning to face the sun, known as heliotropism. As the plant matures, the stems stiffen and the flowers face east. It is a common misconception that sunflowers always turn to face the sun.

While it looks like a single, giant flower, the sunflower head is actually made up of thousands of small flowers. The showy petals along the outside are known as ray florets, they cannot reproduce. The disc florets that make up the centre of the flower, are both male and female and can produce a seed. They can be pollinated by wind, bees or self-pollinate.

The tiny buds within a sunflower head are arranged in a series of intricate spiral patterns. The number of left and right spirals are consecutive Fibonacci numbers. Normally there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other.

Depending on the variety, sunflowers produce two different types of seed. The black seed is used to make sunflower oil, the snack food is made from the larger striped seeds. Birds love both kinds of sunflower seed.

Sunflowers are native to the Americas, and were a common crop among native North American Indian tribes. Evidence suggests Indians in Arizona and New Mexico may have been growing sunflowers as a domestic crop in 3000 BC, in fact, sunflower crops may precede the domestication of corn.

Sunflower seed was used as a food, a dye for textiles and body paint, parts of the plant were believed to have medicinal benefits and the dried stalk was used as a building material. The plant and seeds were widely used in ceremonies.

Sunflowers were taken to Europe by Spanish explorers and were grown as an ornamental in the 18th century. By 1830, sunflower seed was grown on a commercial scale. The Orthodox Church is credited with increasing the popularity of sunflower oil by forbidding most oil foods from being consumed during the season of Lent. Sunflower oil was not prohibited and became very popular as a food. By the early 19th century, Russian farmers grew more than 800,000 hectares of sunflowers. By the end of the 19th century, Russian sunflower seed made its way back to North America, with the appearance of ‘Mammoth Russian’ sunflower, which is still available today.

It is interesting to note that Canada started an official sunflower breeding program in 1930 with material from Mennonite (immigrants from Russia) gardens. Demand for sunflower oil spurred an increase in acreage and by 1946 Canadian farmers built a small crushing plant to process the seed.

Sunflower heads are ready to harvest when the yellow back of the head turns brown. If drying the heads outside, cover them with plastic mesh or brown paper bags to protect them from birds. Alternately, you can cut the ripe seed heads (leave a 30-centimetre stem attached) and hang them upside down in a dry garage or shed. Allow two or three weeks for the seed to dry. Rub two seed heads together to remove the seeds. The seed can also be stored on the heads until you are ready to use them.

Dried sunflower seed heads can be suspended with twine, seed side up, to make a natural bird feeder. Sunflower seeds are high in energy and birds prefer them over many other types of seed. Many species of bees will visit sunflowers. Honey bees and bumble bees are known to be effective pollinators of this crop.

I have often admired the rows of sunflowers edging the cornfields in the Bruce Peninsula, and wondered if there was reason for this pairing. Apparently, sunflowers help to deter armyworm infestations and increase the corn yield. Armyworms feed on grass and corn crops.

— Theresa Forte is a local garden writer, photographer and speaker. You can reach her by calling 905-351-7540 or by email at theresa_forte@sympatico.ca.

 

How to grow sunflowers

Sunflowers are easy to grow. Plant the seed directly in the garden in the spring, once all danger of frost has passed, in light, well-drained soil in a sunny location. Keep the seed moist until it germinates, usually in 10 to 14 days. The spacing of the seed varies depending on the variety; check the package directions before planting. Sunflowers appreciate regular watering but should not be over fertilized.

Sunflower sampler from our local Stokes Seed Catalogue to try next season:

Mammoth Russian: (2 m tall) offers huge single yellow flowers that can stretch 25 cm across. Seed producing.

Color Fashion Mix: offers an interesting mix of 10-cm wide yellow, red and brown sunflowers (2 m tall), great for cutting or a pretty screen. Seed producing.

Sunrich Orange: offers orange-yellow flowers on shorter, 91-cm-tall plants that are suitable for cutting.

Soraya: has very large 10- to 15-cm blooms in shades of tangerine with dark seeded centres and thick stems (2 m tall). This variety produces many side stems that will extend the flowering season.

 



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