Can there be a more appropriate topic when temperatures are tropical and the heat index heads into the 110-degree range than sunflowers? Maybe the sunflowers of this steamy, sultry summer will be among your day brighteners (along with air conditioning).
There are "sunflowers" and then there are sunflowers. A variety of plants, such as rosinweeds, ox-eye and tickseed "sunflowers" may be mistaken for, and are often called, sunflowers. They may look like similar to the real thing, these plants belong to different botanical genera.
Although the color of the center disk flowers varies, all true sunflowers have 10 to 25 petal-like ray flowers and belong to the genus Helianthus. This name comes from the Greek words helios (sun) and anthos (flower).
Most folks are familiar with the correctly named common sunflower (Helianthus annuus). A favorite of birds and humans, it's grown commercially. Fields of these flowers often stand like soldiers with huge heavy heads, turning their faces in unison to follow the sun throughout the day.
The wild common sunflower is the ancestor of the cultivated crop plant. However, it's notably branched stem, shorter (2 to 5 feet) and with a smaller flower head 3 to 6 inches across. Unlike most sunflowers, it's an annual rather than a perennial plant, and is found growing in dry open places and in disturbed soils along roads.
"Wildflowers -- A Collection of U.S. Commemorative Stamps," written by Sara Day and produced by the U.S. Postal Service, details the rich historical background of this flower. Inca Indians of Peru worshipped the sunflower as a symbol of the sun. Priestesses in the temple of the sun wore necklaces of sunflowers made from gold. A woodcut, thought to be the first published illustration of a sunflower, appeared in "A Niewe Herball or Historie of Plants" in 1578. In the 1580s, artist explorer John White made a drawing of an Indian village near what is now the North Carolina Outer Banks showing dishplate-headed sunflowers planted next to corn.
When Lewis and Clark approached the sources of the Missouri River in Montana in 1805, they came upon Indians parching sunflower seeds and pounding them between two stones until they were reduced to a fine meal.
American settlers of European descent learned an astonishing variety of uses for the sunflower from the Indians. They planted them near their homes in the belief the flowers provided protection against malaria, turned their leaves and stalks into fodder; fibers from the stalks were used to make cloth; leaves were dried and smoked like tobacco; young sprouts and seeds were eaten; seed husks were ground and made into a coffee-like drink, oil from the seeds was used in cooking and making soap and a permanent yellow dye was made from the ray flowers.
In more recent times, Kansas residents selected the sunflower as their official state flower. According to "Roadside Plants and Flowers" by Marian S. Edsall, the sunflower is the leading contender in the ongoing and long-drawn-out Congressional debate to name a national flower. Were it to be chosen, the debate would probably continue and be further complicated by the need to decide the representative species.
The stiff sunflower (H. laetiflorus), like its cousin the common sunflower, has a head with a dark disk. It is a prairie perennial and flourishes in sandy soils of the drier regions of southern and western Minnesota. Stems are slender and wiry and usually from 2 to 4 feet in height.
Maximilian's sunflower (H. maximiliani), with its yellow facial disk, frequents the plains and prairies of Minnesota as well as central North America. It is named after Prince Maximilian of Wied, Germany, who early in the 1800s traveled the plains with artist Carl Bodmer, known for his paintings of Native Americans and western scenery.
Tall or giant sunflower (H. giganterus) lives up to its name by sending up a branched stalk that may reach 10 feet. Look for this lanky perennial in roadside ditches or in more northern and wetter locations in the state. Sawtooth sunflowers (H. grosseserratus) are more common in southern Minnesota.
A widespread species, the wood sunflower (H. strumosus) is shorter, measuring 4 to 6 feet. As its name implies, it thrives in dry woods. The woodland sunflower (H. divaricatus) is usually found in open woods and woodland edges primarily in the hardwood forests of southern Minnesota and temperate eastern North America. Flower heads have yellow disks and are mostly at the ends of the forked stems.
Another sunflower, inappropriately called Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), is cultivated for its edible tuber. Tubers are of value for special diets since they contain inulin, not starch. It did not originate in Jerusalem. That part of its name comes from the Italian girasole, meaning "turning to the sun." And its only relationship to an artichoke is the faint bland taste of the boiled root.
Few sights are cheerier than coming across sporadic sunflowers dotting byways and backroads. Adorned with yellow "petals" and disks of gold, brown and purple, they delight even those who are not so fond of the sun. Look for them now and until well into the cooler weather of October.
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