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Wild sunflowers along roadside in New Mexico

Sunflowers a.k.a. “Common Sunflower”, “Mirasol”, “Kansas Sunflower”

Helianthus annuus

Localitie: Located throughout the western and southern United States, Southern Canada, and Northern Mexico. They are native to meadows, roadsides, foothills, prairies, and dry plains preferring well drained soils.

Description: The Common sunflower is a large roadside plant that grows off a coarse, hairy, leafy large stalk with stiff branching upright stems ranging in height from 3-9 feet tall, producing 3-6″ orange-yellow rayed flower heads containing numerous seeds in their brown-purple center disks flowering in summer annually. Common along fences, fields, ditches, roads, trackways, and waste areas especially in the Americas west of the Mississippi. Over the last 3,000 years, Native American and European cultivation of the plant has altered the size and seeds a thousand fold. These have become their own domesticated variety.

Cultivation: Best grown in moist, average well-drained soils under full sun exposure. They can also do well in poor soils, that are on the dry side, as long as full sunlight is granted. Best to plant after the last frost date for the area. The Sunflower was first domesticated by the Amerindians from the regions of southern Canada, western/southern America, and northern Mexico for food. It is believed that the Sunflower was first cultivated by the Native Americans, then spread from Mexico to Spain, onward to Europe, to the Russians, and finally to the European colonists in the New World.

Culinary: Domesticated by Native Americans for thousands of years, the sunflower was used in a variety of cooking methods. The seeds were roasted, cooked, dried, ground, or eaten raw, or pressed to create sunflower oil. The seeds can be roasted and ground to make a coffee substitution. Flower buds are boiled and eaten or added to dishes.

Common Uses: Sunflowers are used as ornamentals and for herbal gardens with companion planting. Black and purple dyes are made from the plant to dye baskets. The ray flowers are used to make a yellow dye. The dyes would be used to dye fabric, basketry, or body paint. Infusions from the seeds have been used as a flea repellent. Stalks are used as fodder for livestock, poultry/livestock food, fuel, and ensilage. Russians use the hulls to manufacture furfural and ethyl alcohol, growing yeast, and lining plywood, or for commercial fiber. Others use it for fiber in plants and paper manufacture.

Cultural and Mythological: State flower of Kansas. The Sunflower is the common name but the Latin Genus species “Helianthus” comes from the Greek word “helios anthos” which translates to “Sun flower”. The species “annuus” means “annual”. The Hopi Indians believe that when sunflowers are numerous, it is a sign that there will be an abundant harvest. The Teton Dakota say that when the sunflowers are tall and in full bloom, the buffalo are ready for hunt as they are fat with good meat. The Iroquois tribe of North America incorporate sunflowers as part of their creation myth. The Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez claimed that sunflower held aphrodisiac powers. The Rees, Mandan, and Gros Ventres made an oil from the seeds to lubricate and paint the face and body for ceremony, and also ate the seeds as a stimulant for war or hunting parties to alleviate fatigue. The Navajo used the plant for sun sand painting ceremonies and as a disinfectant preventing pre-natal infections caused by solar phenomena such as eclipses. they also pulverized seeds and roots together to make a salve to apply in order to prevent a horse from falling on a person, and as a moxa of the pith to remove warts. The flowers are worn in the hair of various tribal women (such as the Hopi in Arizona) for ceremonies.

Medicinal: Europeans used the plant as a remedy for pulmonary issues, the seeds for coughs and colds, as a substitute for quinine treating malaria, as well as a expectorant and diuretic. In Mexico, it is believed that sunflowers when eaten was good to soothe chest pains. The Pima would make a poultice from the warm ashes of burnt sunflowers and apply to the stomach to get rid of worms and a decoction from the leaves to stop high fevers. The Dakota would boil the flower heads, separate the involucrul bracts, and create a remedy for pulmonary issues. The Cochiti would make a juice from crushing the sunflower stems and apply them to cuts and wounds to speed healing. Cherokee made an infusion of the leaves to treat kidneys and the Dakota for chest pains and pulmonary troubles. Pawnee women ate a concoction made from dry seeds to protect suckling children from infections. Hopi used the plant for skin issues and as a spider medicine. Navajo used the seeds as a appetite stimulant. The Paiute tribe used sunflower root to alleviate rheumatism. Zuni would make a poultice from the root to treat snakebites.

Wild sunflowers along roadside in New Mexico

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