A short history of sunflowers

The sunflower or Helianthus Annuus is a native plant of North America. The word helianthus refers to a plant which turns its flowers and leaves to the sun and the name Helianthus Annuus comes from the Greek language, with helios meaning sun, anthus meaning flower and annuus meaning annual.



Sunflowers are believed to have been grown by American Indians in Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 BC. They were used in many ways – the seed was ground or pounded into flour for cakes and bread or cracked and eaten for a snackthe meal was mixed with other vegetables such as beans, squash and corn and the oil was squeezed from the seed and used in bread making too. Non-food uses include dye for textiles and body painting. Some parts of the plant were used for medicinal purposes including treating snakebite, the oil of the seed was used on the skin and hair and the dried stalk was used as a building material.

Sunflowers were taken to Europe by Spanish explorers around 1500 and the plant became widespread throughout Western Europe, for ornamental and medicinal purposes. In the 18th century sunflowers became popular in Russia too. This is mostly credited to Peter the Great but the Russian Orthodox Church also played a part by forbidding most oil foods from being consumed during Lent. As sunflowers were not on the prohibited list, they became popular as a food. red and almost black being called called Russian Giant.

By the early 19th century, Russian farmers were growing over two million acres of sunflowers and by the late 19th century, Russian sunflower seed found its way to the USA.  Today there are over 80 species of sunflower, ranging in colour from lemon to golden yellow, orange, pink, red and almost black.

Yellow sunflower and butterfly.

Sunflower facts

  • Sunflowers are part of the Asteraceae family which is the same family as daisies and includes more than 23,600 species of herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees.
  • The tallest recorded sunflower was 9.17m (30ft 1inch). It was grown by Hans-Peter Schiffer in Karst, Nordrhein Westfalen, Germany, who had held the record twice previously.
  • In Chinese culture sunflowers are said to symbolise good luck, long life and lasting happiness, while in native American culture, sunflowers symbolise harvest and provision.
  • Floriography or the ‘language of flowers’ was popular in Britain during the Victorian era when learning the symbolism behind each flower was a popular hobby – a tall sunflower meant false riches and a small one expressed adoration.

Two varieties of sunflowers.

  • The sunflower is the national flower of both Russia and Ukraine and there is a variety of sunflower called Russian Giant.
  • Ukraine is the world’s largest producer and exporter of sunflower seeds and sunflower oil. Sunflowers can be seen in the yards of village houses, they are woven into wreaths called venki for girls to wear at celebrations,  embroidered on fabrics and painted on walls, wooden furniture and household items in a folk art called petrykivka.
  • In June 1996, to mark Ukraine’s complete nuclear disarmament, top defence officials from the United States, Russia and Ukraine scattered sunflower seeds in a field at the Pervomaysk missile base in southern Ukraine, where the destroyed remains of missiles were in underground silos. 
  • Kansas, USA is known as the sunflower state, however, the sunflower was not highly regarded by all and an 1895 state law called the sunflower a ‘noxious weed’ that should be destroyed. 

Yellow sunflower and bee.

  • At the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games sunflowers appeared in the winners bouquets. The flowers were mainly grown in three districts of north east Japan that were devastated by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The sunflowers were planted by parents whose children died in the disaster. 
  • After the Hiroshima, Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear disasters, fields of sunflowers were planted to help absorb toxic metals and radiation from the soil.  Sunflowers are  hyperaccumulators meaning they have the ability to take up high concentrations of toxic materials in their tissues. 
  • In Hindu culture, the symbol of the sunflower is known as the flower of the Sun (Suryar Mukki). The male Hindu Sun God (Surat dada) is worshiped through the sunflower and so all the female Goddesses also love the sunflower. In Hindu culture if you are a devotee of a Hindu Goddess then it is custom to adorn their photo or statue with a sunflower. It will please the Goddess very much and the male Sun God will provide equal blessings towards your home and family.
  • In Greek mythology the god of the sun was named Helios. He drove a chariot across the sky and sailed around the northerly stream of Ocean each night in a huge cup. Helios was loved by Clytia but he spurned her for the love of Leucothoe, so Clytia told Leucothoe’s father, who buried Leucothoe in a ditch where she died. Afterwards Helios refused to look at Clytia and she turned into a sunflower.  An engraving by Abraham van Diepenbeeck shows Clytia’s face sprouting petals and her hands morphing into leaves as the sun god refuses to look at her.


  • Vincent van Gogh famously painted twelve canvases of sunflowers, seven of which he used to decorate his home in Arles.
  • Sunflowers are the emblem of the third year of marriage. Their strong stems are said to symbolise the strong foundation of a relationship, while their sunny disposition represents the warmth shared between lovers. Sunflowers turn their heads to follow the direction of the sun and this symbolises loyalty. 
  • Sunflower seeds follow the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers, for example 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and so on. All things in nature tend to follow this pattern and it is seen particularly in spiral shapes, such as the pattern formed by seeds in a sunflower head.
  • Mathematician Alan Turing famous for cracking the Enigma Code during the Second World War, later became fascinated with the mathematical patterns found in stems, leaves and seeds, a study known as phyllotaxis. He was one of a number of scientists who tried to explain the phenomenon but he died before the work was complete. Sixty years after his death a citizen science experiment backed up the work that he started, as well as revealing  other types of patterns in sunflower spirals also.

Dark red sunflower.

Sources and further information



Other sources

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