Sunflowers: Interesting Facts, Their History, Their Cultivation And Commercial Use
the history of sunflowers,
their cultivation, uses ancient and modern, their uses as biodiesel and in cleaning up toxic waste
Among the leading cash crops grown in the United States, sunflowers are the most
practical and diverse. Cultivated around the globe for thousands of years, they have been
used to produce a myriad of products--- cooking oil, medicine, paint, animal feed,
biodiesel--- and as an inexpensive and effective means of cleaning toxins from the
Archaeologists surmise that wild sunflowers were used by Native Americans on the
North American continent as far back as 8,000 years ago. Attempts to improve them
came about 2300 B.C., even predating cultivation of corn, beans, and squash. The seeds
of the sunflower were roasted and eaten as a snack, or ground into a fine meal used to
thicken soups and stews. Roasted hulls were brewed to make a drink similar to coffee
Dye was extracted from hulls and petals, while face paint was made from dried petals
mixed with pollen. Dried stalks were utilized for building material. The oil had a variety
of uses, as hair oil, cooking oil, and medicine, to treat everything from warts and snake
bites to heatstroke and coughs.
There are approximately 67 species and 19 subspecies of sunflowers growing in the wild
and in ditches across North America. Wild sunflowers have many flowers or heads on
one stalk and require insects for pollination. They are the genetic basis of today's hybrid
commercial sunflowers, which have only one flower per stalk and may be bred without
the help of insects. Two types of sunflowers are grown commercially in the United
States, oilseed and confectionery.
Oilseed sunflowers produce small black seeds high in oil content that are processed into
sunflower oil and sunflower meal, which is used as animal feed. Sunflower oil is light in
color, low in saturated fats, has a neutral taste and is ideal for cooking because it can
withstand high temperatures. The seeds are high in energy and a favorite with birds,
providing many of the nutrients they need to thrive in the wild.
Confectionery sunflowers produce large black and white seeds that are roasted and salted
and sold for snacks. Seeds that are dehulled are called kernels and are used in a variety of
food products including snacks and breads.
Sunflowers are immensely popular in family gardens and are easy for children to grow.
They sprout quickly and some varieties grow to an enormous size, measuring 8-12 feet
tall and producing flowers up to several inches across. To plant sunflowers, care should
be taken to sow them in an area that wont shade other plants in your garden later. The
soil should be prepared by mixing it with several inches of compost. Seeds should be
planted in the soil about 1/2 inch deep, and in rows about a foot apart. Water the area
thoroughly. In about 1-2 weeks the seeds should sprout. At that time, remove every other
seedling so the rows are now 2 feet apart. Sunflowers need lots of room to grow! Keep
the seedlings well watered and the area weeded. In about 4 months, the plants will be
mature and the seeds will be ready to harvest. When you see the flower heads are turned
down, the florets in the center of the flower disk are shriveled, and a lemon yellow color
is on the back side, cut the seed head with about 1 foot of stem attached. Hang it in a
warm, dry, and well-ventilated place that is free of insects and rodents. Place a paper bag
with holes or cheesecloth over the heads to catch the falling seeds as they drop during
To roast the seeds, cover the unshelled seeds with salted water overnight. ( Use 1/4 to 1/2
cup of salt for each 2 cups of water ). Drain and dry on absorbent paper. Put the seeds in
a shallow pan and roast them in your oven at 300 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until they
are golden brown. If desired, you can add one teaspoon of melted butter or margarine to
each cup of roasted seeds. Stir well to coat them, put on an absorbent paper towel, and
salt to taste.
Today sunflowers are one of the world's leading oil seed crops, second only to soybeans.
Sunflower oil for cooking purposes is marketed worldwide. It is also used as biodiesel,
or a vegetable-oil based fuel used for running many vehicles, including farming
equipment. The benefits of biodiesel are many. It burns 75% cleaner than petroleum
based diesel. It is highly lubricating, reducing wear and tear on engine parts. It requires
no engine modifications to be used, and can even be mixed with petroleum based fuels.
The by-product of biodesel is glycerin, which can be used in the manufacture of soap or
hundreds of other products.
One of the most beneficial uses of sunflowers is in the removal of toxic waste from the
environment. Utilizing an emerging technology called rhizofiltration, hydroponically
grown plants are grown floating over water. Possessing extensive root systems, they are
able to reach deep into sources of polluted water and extract large amounts of toxic
metals, including uranium. Such a process has been utilized in the former Soviet Union
to decontaminate water polluted as a result of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear
power plant. The roots of floating rafts of sunflowers were able to extract 95% of the
radioactivity in the water caused by that accident.
After 8000 years of cultivation, it seems safe to say that the sunflower will still be around
for many future generations. And who knows what marvelous products and numerous
benefits are yet to be discovered? Sunflowers truly are a practical and diverse plant.