Flower Power: 10 Surprising Facts About Sunflowers
Sunflowers look amazing in the backyard, but there’s a lot more to them than being tall and beautiful. We reveal some unusual uses for sunflowers, and why you may have trouble growing other plants in the same garden bed.
Loved by people and pollinators alike, sunflowers are tall annual beauties that can grow to immense heights. Some species of sunflower tower over your head. Meanwhile, dwarf varieties can be as small as a few inches in height, looking more like their Asteraceae family relatives, daisies.
Appropriately named for their shape and sunshine requirements, these lovely flowers are an icon of happiness and summer charm. You probably know that sunflower seeds are edible, but what else do you know about this native wildflower?
1. A sunflower is made up of thousands of tiny flowers.
We generally consider the head of a sunflower to be one oversized flower, but it’s actually made up of as many as 2,000 smaller flowers. The big yellow petals and brown centers of the sunflower are individual flowers themselves. All these flowers join together at the base, making what appears to be one large flower.
2. Sunflowers are native to North America.
Sunflowers, like tomatoes, potatoes, and corn, were first grown in North America. Historians know they’ve been cultivated since at least 3000 BCE, which means people have been growing sunflowers in North America for more than 5,000 years. Some archaeologists even speculate that Native American peoples grew sunflowers before they started cultivating corn.
3. There are about 70 varieties of sunflowers.
Although the word “sunflower” may conjure an image of a giant yellow bloom several feet tall, dozens of different sunflower species (at least 70) can be found in various locations. With petals of red, orange, or purple and heights ranging from inches to dozens of feet, these flowers can surprise you with their variety and ornamental aesthetics.
4. Ukraine is a top global producer of sunflower products.
Although sunflowers come from North America, they are now grown all over the world. In fact, the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine. Grown in Ukraine since the mid-18th century, the sunflower has been used as a symbol of peace. In light of the Russia-Ukraine War, the sunflower has also become an international symbol of solidarity with Ukraine.
In addition to several other agricultural products, Ukraine usually produces one-third of the world’s sunflower oil, according to the USDA. The country is normally the world’s top producer of sunflower oil, meal, and seed, exporting more sunflower meal and oil than any other country. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to global sunflower product shortages, among other global economic disruptions.
5. Sunflower seed spirals follow the Fibonacci sequence.
Look closely at the pattern of a sunflower’s seeds, and you’ll notice a spiral pattern. In many instances, the florets and seeds within the pattern actually follow the Fibonacci sequence. In this mathematical sequence, each number is the sum of the previous two consecutive numbers, so it goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on.
Count the clockwise and counterclockwise spirals of seeds to the outer edge, and you’ll often find they add up to two consecutive numbers in the sequence, like 55 and 89. Try it for yourself!
6. Sunflower heads are edible.
Truth be told, you can eat any part of a sunflower. However, the leaves, petals, and stems may leave much to be desired by your palate, despite the fact that no part of the plant is poisonous. That said, immature sunflower heads can be quite tasty when grilled or roasted the right way. Sunflower heads take only a few minutes to prepare and cook. Simply follow a recipe like this one from Gilbertie’s Organics for easy, homegrown flavor.
7. Dried sunflower heads can be used as scrubbing pads.
Going green? Instead of buying a compostable scouring pad, make your own from your garden. Sunflower heads are sturdy, so they make a terrific eco-friendly alternative to store-bought scrubbing pads. After drying out your sunflower heads, use them to scrub stubborn gunk off of your pots and pans.
8. Sunflowers are allelopathic.
For gardeners who haven’t heard the term before, allelopathic plants emit chemicals that hinder the growth of other plants in the area. Sunflowers give off toxins, such as terpenes and phenolic compounds, that kill their neighbors. As sunflowers reproduce by seed, their allelopathic nature gives them a head start the following year by clearing out some of the competition.
This is great for natural weed control, but not ideal when growing a bounty of other crops. Keep plants like beans and potatoes away from sunflowers because they are particularly susceptible to the chemicals. In spite of their allelopathic properties, sunflowers are still good for companion planting (at a distance) and can help shade other crops like lettuce that might need a little break from the sun.
9. Sunflower heads track the sun.
Young sunflowers are prone to heliotropism, which is to say they move to track the sun. When the sun rises, the flowers face east, and then they turn throughout the day as the sun moves. By sunset, the bloom will face west. As a sunflower matures, the head gets heavier, and the flower stays pointing east all day long.
10. The tallest sunflower is over 30 feet tall.
Although sunflowers bloom just once a season, they can grow to incredible heights. The tallest sunflowers include the Titan, Giraffe, Sunzilla, Kong, and Pike’s Peak varieties.
In August 2014, Guinness World Records confirmed the height of the world’s tallest sunflower at a towering height of 30 feet and 1 inch. It was grown by Hans-Peter Schiffer in Kaarst, Germany, and it was the gardener’s third time breaking the world’s tallest sunflower record.