Sunflowers are universally loved for their happy, smiling faces and they make popular gifts in the summer months. Their name, Helianthus, comes from the Greek - helios means sun and anthos means flower. At one time, the Sunflower was seasonal but now, because of its widespread cultivation, particularly in Israel, it is available almost every week of the year from some sunny climate or other. There are about 150 different species of herbaceous annual and perennial Sunflowers throughout the world, although they appear mostly in the Americas where they have adapted to a wide range of climates, including wetlands, arid grasslands and rich fertile soil, as well as roadsides and wastelands. Where humans have gone, Sunflowers have followed because of the food value of their seeds which are an important source of vegetable oil.
The thrill of discovering Sunflowers growing wild on hillsides and grass verges while I was driving through the United States usually meant that my journeys would be delayed whilst I stopped and marvelled at them. To me, it is very appropriate that Sunflower should be the national flower of the United States because it shares some of its characteristics with the country and it originated there. I think it is the perfect American plant - bold, optimistic, tenacious, mighty, powerful and sassy. A rather more important reason for the Sunflower being the quintessentially American flower is that it is the only one of world economic importance that originated in the United States.
In southern Spain, Italy and France, where they are grown for their seeds, Sunflowers are breathtaking to behold en masse. It is humbling, yet exhilarating at the same time, to walk through a field of Sunflowers and examine the obedient way in which they follow the sun's path with their heads, like ranks of well-drilled soldiers. Before dawn, the flowerheads will still be facing west from the previous evening's sunset but, as the sun rises, they will soon swing from the west to the east to welcome the sun's early morning rays. This movement is repeated each day until pollenation is complete, the ovaries contained in the flowerheads are fertilised and the flowerhead is heavy with its developing seeds. The heavy flowerhead then bows down, pregnant with its crop.
Sunflowers are tremendously colouful, and their glorious frill of yellow petals attract insects for pollination. They have had a long domestic association. Carbon dating suggests the existence of sunflowers growing at least 1500 years ago in Colombia, South America, and this country is one of the biggest exporters of these cheerful flowers.
The face of a Sunflower consists of an outer frill of daisy-like petals and a centre crammed with seeds arranged in a dense, honeycomb pattern. The flowers are typically yellow, with a green, brown or near-black centre, although brown and maroon varieties are becoming increasingly available. The double forms have fluffy, yellow petals. There are both annual and perennial varieties of Sunflower, but the giant-headed annual blooms are better loved than the smaller, perennial flowers. The flowers vary considerably in size and range from large heads that are as much as 6" (15cm) across to smaller ones about 1" (2.5cm) in diameter. Equally, you can choose between dwarf varieties, which grow to no more than 2 feet (60 cm) or tall annuals, which will tower over you at 10 feet (3.3metres) or more. The most popular varieties are the perennial semi-double Helianthus decapetalus "Soleil d'Or" and the single and double forms of H.annus. The perennial H. decapetalus "Loddon Gold" has only a limited season, but its double flowers last for a long time in water.
When the shaggy flowers arrive in my shop after a long-haul flight they sometimes look ready to be discarded. My staff have often unpacked Sunflowers and complained that they look half-dead, only to find the following day that they have revived and turned into an army of cheerful, erect and alert smiling faces. Once cut, these flowers need plenty of water, so I would advise that you transport them in water whenever possible. It is hard to generalize about how long they will last as cut flowers, but one or two weeks is a realistic time span. When you condition the Sunflowers, use a pair of sharp scissors to cut off at least 1" (2.5cm) at the base of the stem in a slanting cut, remove all the foliage to lengthen the life of the cut flowers, then put them in plenty of fresh water into which you have dissolved some flower food. (More Flower Care tips)
The brown centres of the large varieties, which are grown for their seeds, are occasionally cut and auctioned at the Dutch flower auctions and then exported. These huge, ripe seedheads can measure almost 12" (30cm) in diameter and provide texture and an element of surprise in flower arrangements. When we have had large quantities of Sunflowers which have become damaged in the shop, I have stripped them off their petals and used the seedheads as foliage for tied bunches or to give added interest and texture to larger arrangements.
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