Plant of the Month - September 2012

Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done;

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go!
William Blake

Have you recently ate chips (fried or oven)? Crisps Maybe? Possibly even one of those grain bars which claim to make you live forever if you eat enough of them? Perhaps you use a vegetable oil spread on your toast, or maybe you fling the odd fish fingers in batter into the oven every so often. Maybe you are interested in bio-fuels and their role in the environment, or maybe even indulged yourself by scribbling on a piece of paper or two. You may even be an admirer of the artistry of Vincent Van Gogh...

If so, you are most certainly interested in September’s plant of the month; the noble Sunflower.

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is an annual plant native to the Americas. It possesses a large inflorescence (flowering head). The sunflower is named after its huge, fiery blooms, whose shape and image is often used to depict the sun. It has a rough, hairy stem, broad, coarsely toothed, rough leaves and circular heads of flowers. The heads consist of many individual flowers which mature into seeds, often in the hundreds, on a receptacle base. Sunflower seeds were brought to Europe in the 16th century.

The Sunflower was probably first introduced to Europe through Spain, and spread through Europe as a curiosity until it reached Russia where it was readily adapted.

Here at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens, we have a collection of very impressive specimens standing erect in the Batty Langley Kitchen Garden. 

Batty appears to be silent on the issue of sunflowers; however in 1881 in the book 'The English Flower Garden' Henry A Bright waxes lyrical about them thus:

'Sunflowers, also in clumps, should stand out here and there, and though the modern sceptics 
may tell us that this American plant cannot be the Clytie of Grecian story, it amply vindicates 
its name by its large discs, surrounded by golden rays.'

To grow best, sunflowers need full sun. They grow best in fertile, moist, well-drained soil with heavy mulch. In commercial planting, seeds are planted 45cm (1.5ft) apart and 2.5cm (1 inch) deep. Sunflower "whole seed" (fruit) are sold as a snack food, raw or after roasting in ovens, with or without salt and/or seasonings added. Sunflowers can be processed into a peanut butter alternative, sunflower butter. In Germany, it is mixed with rye flour to make Sonnenblumenkernbrot (literally: sunflower whole seed bread), which is quite popular in German-speaking Europe. It is also sold as food for birds and can be used directly in cooking and salads. American Indians had multiple uses for sunflowers in the past, such as in bread, medical ointments, dyes and body paints.

Sunflower oil, extracted from the seeds, is used for cooking, as a carrier oil and to produce margarine and biodiesel, as it is cheaper than olive oil. A range of sunflower varieties exist with differing fatty acid compositions; some 'high oleic' types contain a higher level of monounsaturated fats in their oil than even olive oil.

The cake remaining after the seeds have been processed for oil is used as a livestock feed. Some recently developed cultivars have drooping heads. These cultivars are less attractive to gardeners growing the flowers as ornamental plants, but appeal to farmers, because they reduce bird damage and losses from some plant diseases. Sunflowers also produce latex, and are the subject of experiments to improve their suitability as an alternative crop for producing hypoallergenic rubber.

Sunflowers can be used in phytoremediation to extract toxic ingredients from soil, such as lead, arsenic and uranium. They were used to remove caesium-137 and strontium-90 from a nearby pond after the Chernobyl disaster, and a similar campaign was mounted in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

Sunflower seeds are more commonly eaten as a healthy snack than as part of a meal. They can also be used as garnishes or ingredients in various recipes. The seeds may be sold as in-shell seeds or de hulled kernels. The seeds can also be sprouted and eaten in salads. However, eating expired sunflower seeds may cause stomach irritation such as bloating or diarrhoea due to the rotting of the seed.

When in-shell seeds are processed, they are first dried. Afterwards, they may also be roasted or dusted with salt or flour for preservation of flavour. De-hulling is commonly performed by cracking the hull with one's teeth and spitting it out while keeping the kernel in the mouth and eating it.

In-shell sunflower seeds are particularly popular in Mediterranean and Asian countries, including Egypt, Syria, Israel, Turkey, and Malaysia. In Turkey, Syria and Israel they can be bought freshly roasted in shops and markets and are a common stadium food, while in Malaysia they can be bought freshly packed in various roasted flavors. They are also popular in countries worldwide including Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Spain, China, Morocco, Iran, Canada and the United States.

The arrangement of seeds on a sunflower head has also been the cause of mathematical interest because of the arrangement in both the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden mean. Those who are interested in this aspect should click on http://www.popmath.org.uk/rpamaths/rpampages/sunflower.html where your brain will be suitably entertained.


Legend has it….

  • that a sunflower planted in your yard will bring you good luck. 
  • that a sunflower cut at sunset will bring you good luck the next day. 
  • that if you want know the truth in any situation, sleep with a sunflower under your bed. 
  • to protect against small pox, wear sunflower seeds around your neck.
The story that a sunflower will track the path of the sun during the day however is sadly without foundation, fun though it is. The story was debunked as early as 1597 by the English botanist John Gerard, but as usual such stories have a lives of their own.


The art of Vincent Van Gogh has done more in the 20th and 21st Centuries to make the sunflower famous than just about anything else. His series of Sunflower paintings can be viewed by clicking on this link:

National Gallery, London.

So that's our fab plant of the month for September, providing much food for both the body and mind. Pay them a visit in the Batty Langley Kitchen Garden. You can hardly miss them!

Thanks to

Gordon Sammons

Creative Commons Licence
The photographs by Graham High are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

1 comment:

  1. Another fascinating "Plant of the Month" post Graham - really interesting. I have learned so much this year about plants at the Gardens from your features. The sunflowers are looking splendid at the Gardens at present and I love your photos!