Where do sunflowers come from?

Watch sunflowers dance under the sun (Seriously)

Sunflowers may be rooted to the ground, but that doesn’t mean they can’t dance.

Each day, young sunflowers trace the path of the sun across the sky, turning their faces 180 degrees from east to west.

And their slow, graceful movements continue at night. After the sun sets, the plants reorient themselves, slowly twisting their heads back to the east in anticipation of dawn.

Circadian biologist Stacey Harmer, a professor at UC Davis, became interested in studying the motion of sunflowers after watching mesmerizing time-lapse videos of this dance of the plants.

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“At nighttime, you could see the whole plant rearranging itself, and it was such an amazing thing,” she said. “I tell my students all the time that plants are capable of incredible things — we just don’t notice because their time scale is different than ours.”

The observation that juvenile sunflowers track the sun is not new — Darwin himself reported the phenomenon more than 100 years ago. But until now, no one had explained how the sunflowers move and why. In a paper published Thursday in the journal Science, Harmer and her collaborators reveal the answers to these questions.

“What they did is take a dusty old scientific curiosity, and did really great science on it,” said Steven Kay, director of convergent biosciences at USC, who was not involved in the study.

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The team’s first step was to plant a field of sunflowers and observe what happened before they started fiddling with variables.

As the plants grew from young seedlings into mature, yellow-headed adults, the researchers found that the sun-tracking movements of the plant became less and less noticeable, until they stopped altogether.

“A really common misconception is that mature sunflowers follow the sun. Actually, they do not,” Harmer said. “Mature sunflowers always face east.”

The group also observed that the plants could pace their movements. For example, during the short nights of midsummer, young sunflowers took just 8 hours to swing their heads from west to east. However, during the longer nights of autumn, it took them 12 hours to accomplish the same feat.

A young sunflower plant not only tracks the sun during the day but also reorients at night in anticipation of dawn.

To find out how the plants were moving, the scientists went into a field of sunflowers and marked both sides of their stems with a Sharpie pen at regular intervals.

Using a time-lapse camera, they were able to see that the east side of the stem grew longer during the day, turning the plant’s head to the west. At night, the reverse was true — the west side elongated, causing the plant to face the east.

But what was controlling this growth pattern? Was it the movement of the sun or some kind of internal clock?

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To answer this question the researchers moved dwarf sunflowers from an outdoor field into a controlled lighting environment in the lab. The scientists report that even when the plants were grown under constant, fixed overhead lighting, they maintained the same head-turning rhythms they displayed in the field for several days.

In another lab experiment, the researchers messed with the sunflowers’ internal clocks by exposing them to a 30-hour light cycle. This thoroughly confused the plants, and they wound up turning their heads furthest to the west well before the transition to dark. During the night, the plants moved erratically.

Together these results suggest that the sunflowers’ movements are regulated by something other than simple growth toward the sun. Some kind of circadian clock was also controlling the plants’ twists and turns.

The next question, of course, was why. Are sunflowers served by their ability to track the sun? And is there a benefit to the mature sunflowers’ decision to turn to the east?

Another series of experiments revealed the answer. Every night for 100 nights, Harmer’s post-doctorate researcher Hagop Atamian went into a field of sunflowers planted in pots and rotated them so they were facing west in the morning. In multiple trials, the group found that the manipulated plants were 10% smaller compared to a control group.

“That’s a really big difference,” Harmer said.

The group also reported that mature sunflowers have good reason to face east. The authors found that east-facing sunflowers attract up to five times the number of pollinators compared with those that were rotated in their pots so that they were facing west.

Yet another experiment showed that this is almost certainly because east-facing sunflowers are more effectively warmed by the morning sun than sunflowers that are facing west. To come to this conclusion, another of Harmer’s post-docs warmed west-facing sunflowers with a heat source until they were the same temperature as east-facing sunflowers.

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Pollinators were more likely to come to the artificially warmed west-facing sunflowers than those that had not been warmed. However, the pollinators still preferred the east-facing sunflowers.

Although the scientists uncovered many of the sunflower’s secrets, Harmer said there is still much to learn. In future work she plans to study what genes regulate the sunflowers’ dramatic movements.

“They are really great plants, and we kept finding out fascinating things about them,” she said.

Do you love science? I do! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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UPDATES:

5:25 p.m. Aug. 5: This article has been updated with additional information about the study and comments from Steven Kay of USC.

This article was originally published at 6:45 p.m. on Aug. 4.

Be like a Sunflower

A few days back, I got to read an exciting concept about sunflowers. These vibrant yellow flowers are known for its beauty and also for healthy vegetable oil they provide us as food! Sunflower seeds also serve as a nutritious snack. Above all, these plants are known for a typical idiosyncrasy – “heliotropism”. These plants (and flowers) turn their face toward the sun and track it. As karthe sun travels across the sky, the flower head tilts and swivels to ensure that it keeps facing the sun always.

Sun is a powerful source of energy which is wisely leveraged by these plants through this process of ‘solar tracking’. That’s the reason why sunflowers are also known as happiest of all flowers! The powerful vibrancy of these flowers provides mental, physical as well as spiritual energy to those around it!

Well, I was curious to understand what happens to these plants on a winter day! Or a day when there is no sun but all shade? Where do these flowers look at, under such situations? How do they source energy when the sun is absent? The answer I got was enlightening. When the winter blues cast a spell, and the sun hides beyond the sky, these sunflowers look at one another to harness the mutual energy radiated by them!

This phenomenon, to me, is something like cohesive teamwork in the setup of an organisation. Let me elucidate the idea further with some illustrations.

Some time back I had read a quote which said, “The best lessons in management are learnt in the times of economic recessions!”

When the market is on a high and sales revenue keeps flowing in, the most apparent (and also the most fragile!) indicator of satisfaction – i,e, ‘the incentives’ (or dividends), keep flying into the bank accounts of employees and stakeholders. Naturally, the sense of being cash rich makes people feel happy. However, when the times get tough, and sustenance becomes a challenge for organisations – many people fret, and their confidence gets shattered. These are the phases in life when members of a team should take lessons from a sunflower.

The bullish phase of the business environment is akin to the rising sun which radiates hope and optimism. The sunflowers (read employees/ stakeholders) in the garden (read organisation) find themselves comfortable in the warmth of the high energy sun rays! As the bear phase ushers in, many of these flowers start to wilt! The reason – they never realised that all members of the team could become a mutual source of energy and enthusiasm for each other.

In a team, the members usually look at the leader for directions, or to get inspiration. Sometimes, it so happens that the leader may not be in the state of best fit. What then? Should the team stop functioning with full exuberance? Nope.

On the contrary, it should look for alternate sources of motivation, preferably within the organisation, and get refuelled for a strong performance! These are phases when colleagues and co-workers can create a net of a strong support system. When the team works closely, and in mutual consensus, the chances of success soar high.

Once a sailor shared a fascinating insight. He said, ‘when the ship is in the midst of a tempest, and nothing seems to be in favour outside, all passengers in a ship depend on one another seeking confidence, support and reassurance. This is how we manage to keep calm and face the challenging as well as rough weathers!” When goings get tough, only those who stay composed and confident become victorious.

The lesson is to shun over-dependence on external factors for inspiration. The internal source of energy imbibed in the synergy of cohabitants has the power to sustain for more extended periods.

If you are a parent/teacher and your kids are reeling under the shadow of examinations, be like a sunflower for them. This is the time to be empathetic and supporting. Harsh comments and criticisms won’t fetch positive results. If you are the Human Resource Manager of an institution and have identified a few slow performers – be like a sunflower for them. Try not to be blunt but be caring and understanding. If you are part of a team which may be going through challenging situations, be like sunflower and build a sustainable ecosystem.

Spiritually, a sunflower represents happiness, togetherness and growth. Let us all learn these values and imbibe those in our behaviour. Let us try to be like a sunflower!

10 Glorious Facts About Sunflowers

Sunflowers, in all their colorful glory, are a happy sight to behold—but there’s more to their nature than just beauty. The multipurpose plants deliver healthy snacks, useful oil, and birdseeds. Let your garden knowledge flourish with these facts about Helianthus Annuus.

1. THEY’RE NATIVE TO THE AMERICAS.

Like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn, the cheerful plants didn’t originate in Europe. They were cultivated in North America as far back as 3000 BCE, when they were developed for food, medicine, dye, and oil. Then, they were exported to the rest of the world by Spanish conquistadors around 1500.

2. THEY WERE BROUGHT TO RUSSIA BY ROYALTY.

Tsar Peter the Great was so fascinated by the sunny flowers he saw in the Netherlands that he took some back to Russia. They became popular when people discovered that sunflower seed oil was not banned during Lent, unlike the other oils the Russian Orthodox Church banned its patrons from consuming. By the 19th century, the country was planting two million acres of sunflowers every year.

3. THEIR POPULARITY STANDS THE TEST OF TIME.

Russian immigrants to the United States in the 19th century brought back highly developed sunflower seeds that grew bigger blooms, and sparked a renewed interest in the native American plant. Later, American sunflower production exploded when Missouri farmers began producing sunflower oil in 1946, when Canada unveiled a mechanical seed-crushing plant, and in the 1970s, when consumers looked for low-cholesterol alternatives to animal fats.

4. THEY NEED A LOT OF RAYS AND ROOM.

The flowers not only look like the sun, they need a lot of it. They grow best with about six to eight hours a day but more is even better. They can grow as tall as 16 feet, although many varieties have been developed to thrive at different heights. Flowers planted too close together will compete and not blossom to their full potential.

5. THEY TRACK THE SUN.

Sunflowers display a behavior called heliotropism. The flower buds and young blossoms will face east in the morning and follow the sun as the earth moves during the day. However, as the flowers get heavier during seed production, the stems will stiffen and the mature flower heads will generally remain facing east.

6. THE WORLD’S TALLEST SUNFLOWER REACHES 30 FEET AND 1 INCH.

In the summer of 2014, Veteran green-thumb Hans-Peter Schiffer toppled the Guinness World Record for third year in a row. The local fire brigade lent its help in measuring the sunflower, which required its own scaffold.

7. THEY HAVE A HISTORY OF HEALING.

In Mexico, the flowers were thought to sooth chest pain. A number of Native American tribes agreed with the plant’s curing properties. The Cherokee utilized an infusion of sunflower leaves to treat kidneys while the Dakota brought it out to sooth “chest pain and pulmanery troubles.”

8. THEY HAVE TRAVELED TO SPACE.

In 2012, U.S. astronaut Don Pettit brought along a few companions to the International Space Station: sunflower seeds. Petit regularly blogged about his budding friendship and shared photos of the gardening process.

9. THEY ARE ACTUALLY THOUSANDS OF TINY FLOWERS.

Each sunflower’s head is made of smaller flowers. The petals we see around the outside are called ray florets, and they cannot reproduce. But the disc florets in the middle, where the seeds develop, have both male and female sex organs, and each produce a seed. They can self-pollinate or take pollen blown by the wind or transported by insects.

10. THEY CAN BE USED AS SCRUBBING PADS.

Once the flower heads are empty of seeds, they can be converting into disposable scrubbing pads for jobs too tough for your cleaning tool.

Check out this time-lapse video of sunflowers growing from seed to seeds—indoors!

All About Sunflowers

Can I Grow Sunflowers Where I Am?

Sunflowers grow best in locations with full sun. They are remarkably tough and will grow in any kind of soil as long as it is not waterlogged. They do fine in soils that are slightly acidic to somewhat alkaline (pH 6.0 to 7.5). Once sunflowers get started, they can tolerate drought as befits plants whose ancestors grew happily in dry prairie regions. They are so easy to grow that they often plant themselves, springing up unbidden beneath a bird feeder.

Sunflower seeds, leaves and stems emit substances that inhibit the growth of certain other plants. They should be separated from potatoes and pole beans. Where sunflower seeds are regularly used as bird feed, toxins from the accumulated seed hulls eventually kill the grass below. Harmless to animals or people, the toxins eventually biodegrade in the soil.

What Is The History Of Sunflower’s?

Contemporary sunflowers trace their ancestry to plants found at archeological sites dating from 3,000 BC. While they grew abundantly on the Great Plains, sunflowers were first purposely cultivated by Native Americans in the Southwest or Mississippi River valley area as a source of medicine, fiber, seeds, and oil.

When the European settlers arrived, they immediately recognized the value of sunflowers and sent seeds back to Europe. There they found a place in English cottage gardens and even Van Gogh’s paintings. However, it was in Russia that the sunflower became a major agricultural crop. They provided a source of oil that could be eaten without breaking church dietary laws. Early in the 20th Century, Russian growers spearheaded the breeding and selection for disease resistance and high oil content. In the 1960s, the U.S. began sustained commercial production of oil seed cultivars to produce vegetable oil.

Should I Grow Sunflower Seeds or Plants?-Shop all Sunflowers

How Do I Cultivate Sunflowers?

To plant sunflowers:

  • Space seeds about 6 inches apart in a shallow trench between 1 and 2 inches deep. In sandy soil, 2 inches deep is better.
  • Cover and keep watered until seeds sprout in 7 to 10 days.
  • When first true leaves appear (the second set of leaves); thin plants to about 2 feet apart.
  • Depending on the variety, sunflowers will mature and develop seeds in 80 to 120 days.
  • Sow a new row every 2 to 3 weeks to enjoy continuous blooms until the first frost.

For maximum seed production space rows 2 to 3 feet apart. Use traditional, tall, seed-producing varieties such as ‘Mammoth’ or ‘Paul Bunyan Hybrid’, ‘Aztec Gold Hybrid’, or ‘Super Snack Hybrid’.

Growing Tips For Sunflowers

Sunflower roots spread widely and can withstand some drought. However, it is best to water them regularly during their most important growth period which is about 20 days before and after flowering. Deep, regular watering helps encourage root growth, which is especially helpful with taller sunflower varieties bearing top-heavy blooms.

Sunflowers do not require fertilizing. However, because they grow vigorously (they can easily grow 6 feet in just 3 months), it’s a good idea to add some slow-acting granular fertilizer to especially poor, thin soil. The better their diet, the larger the flowers. Do not overdo the nitrogen because that will delay flowering. Spreading a 2- or 3-inch mulch layer of some kind of organic material on the soil will reduce moisture loss through evaporation and discourage weeds.

While a few sunflower varieties do not need any staking, it is a good idea to support plants that grow over 3 feet tall or are multi-branched. Their branches are fairly brittle, especially at the points where they join the stems. Shallow rooted and weighed down with many large flower heads, plants are vulnerable to summer winds and rain. Tie the plants loosely to stakes with lengths of cloth or other soft material as needed.

Birds and squirrels can be a problem when seeds ripen and harvest time approaches. If you do not plan to use the seeds, it is fun to watch wildlife enjoy the bounty. You may want to cut the flower heads off and lay them out in the sun to dry and provide easier access to wildlife. Conversely, to deter birds and squirrels, barrier devices are most effective. As seed heads mature and flowers droop, cover each one with white polyspun garden fleece. It will let light and air in and keep critters out. Also try cutting away the few leaves that are closest to the heads to make it harder for birds to perch and feed.
Deer will readily eliminate a sunflower patch. As they favor the new, tender leaves at the top of the plants, a 36-inch chicken wire barrier supported by 6-foot bamboo stakes should keep them at bay. Simply raise the wire as the plants grow.
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What Are Some Sunflower Insects & Diseases?

Sunflowers are virtually as care free as their smiling faces suggest. However, they are sometimes infected with fungal diseases such as mildews and rusts. Downy Mildew causes mottling and pale areas on upper leaf surfaces and a fuzzy mold growth on their undersides. Eventually the leaves wither and die. The oldest leaves are usually infected first. Downy mildew is most likely to occur on cool damp nights and warm humid days. It spreads by means of tiny spores carried to plants and soil by wind and rain or transmitted by garden tools. It will not kill a mature plant; it just mars its appearance.

Rust appears on upper leaf surfaces first as yellow or white spots that turn brown or black. Puffy blisters then appear on the undersides. The disease may spread to stems and flowers causing distorted growth. Rust sometimes spreads to the cultivated sunflowers from weeds such as wild mustard, shepherd’s-purse, pigweed, and lamb’s-quarters.

If fungal diseases are spotted early, spraying with a general garden fungicide as directed on the product label can protect healthy foliage. Remove and destroy seriously infected plants. Keep the area weeded and clean up plant debris from the garden in the fall. Disinfect tools by dipping them in a solution of 1 part household bleach to 4 parts water. Keep your hands clean, and do not handle plants when they are wet.

Harvesting Tips For Sunflowers

In the early fall, check flower heads for signs of maturity. The reverse side turns from green to a yellow-brown. Large heads will nod downward. A close look will reveal the tiny petals covering the developing seeds have dried and now fall out easily exposing the tightly packed mature seeds.

Sunflower Recipes & Storage

Sunflower seeds are rich in vitamins, proteins, and minerals, as well as linoleic acid which helps the body metabolize fats properly. They contain about 24 to 27 percent protein, only slightly less than an equal weight of ground beef. Furthermore, sunflower seeds contain about twice the iron and potassium and about 4 times the phosphorus of beef. Raw sunflower seeds also contain vitamins B and E, and a dash of vitamin A. Sprouted, they also contain vitamin C.

Use the seeds for snacks, alone or mixed with raisins, dried fruit chips, and nuts. Add hulled sunflower seeds to salads and use them in fruit or vegetable recipes. Substitute sunflower seeds for nuts in baking.

See all our sunflowers

Boyds Flowers

Sunflowers are beautiful flowers. They are large, bright flowers that put smiles across people’s faces when they come across them. The sight of rows upon rows of sunflower fields in bloom can be truly inspiring. Other than being a beautiful flower, sunflowers have also been used as a source of food by Native Americans, and the oil that came from the flower was able to soften leather, condition hair and treat wounds. This wonderful plant is more than just a beautiful flower to look at, it is also a versatile flower with a unique history and many interesting characteristics.

The uniqueness of sunflowers makes them such a precious gift for someone special in your life. Since the sunflower is such a versatile and interesting flower, sending someone sunflowers tells them that they are truly special to you. This “Signature Fall” collection from Boyd’s Flowers, the premier Wilmington flower delivery store – is a stunning selection this season for someone you love.

Here are three fun facts you probably didn’t know about sunflowers:

1. Sunflowers are Actually Many Flowers

Did you know that although the sunflower looks like one main flower, it is actually host to hundreds of tiny flowers called florets? At the top of the stem is what is known as the head of the flower. The yellow petals provide leaves that cover the head of the flower until the florets finish growing. The center of the sunflower where the florets bloom is actually filled with hundreds of flowers, all growing individually. Each of these florets can become another sunflower if planted.

2. Sunflowers Track the Sun

The sunflower belongs to the genus Helianthus annus. “Helios” translates to sun in Greek and “annus” means the flower is an annual. The sunflower is the only flower that actually tracks the sun’s position in the sky.

3. Sunflower Oil is Very Useful

Sunflower seeds are popular, but have you ever heard of sunflower oil? Sunflower oil is as versatile as the sunflower itself. By pressing the seeds of the sunflower, you can extract sunflower oil. This oil can be used for cooking, manufacturing of products, machinery lubricants and more. Experiments have shown that sunflower oil may be a possible fuel alternative!

Who knew such a pretty flower could do so many things?

Plant of the Week

Helianthus annuus range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

A. Center of head showing double spiral pattern of fruits (seeds) and yellow pollen on stamens. Photo by David D. Taylor.

B. Plants in ruderal habitat along railroad line. Photo by David D. Taylor.

C. Underside of head showing coarse bracts. Photo by David D. Taylor.

D. Closeup of stem showing hairs. Photo by David D. Taylor.

Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.)

By David Taylor

Common sunflower is a member of the Asteraceae, the Sunflower family. In older manuals and guides, this family is called the Compositae because the ‘flowers’ are a composite of many flowers, often of different types. The many species of plants in this family are grouped based on the arrangement and type of flowers. All members of the family produce one or more heads (capitulum, the term used in technical keys) of flowers. This and other sunflowers have two different types of flowers, ray flowers and disk flowers and in turn, these can have male and female parts, or either one or the other. The ray flowers look like petals, but each is actually an individual flower. The disc flowers are at the center of the head, inside the ring of ray flowers. The disc flowers are usually small. With a hand lens one can see the distinct tips of 5 petals in each flower. The disc flowers closest to the ray flowers open first. There are 52 species of sunflowers, all native to North America and Mexico.

This sunflower is 1 to 3 meters (ca. 39 to 118 inches) tall (cultivated forms often taller). The stem is stiff, and usually coarsely hairy (see photo D), often more than 2.5 centimeters (1 inches) in diameter. Leaves are mostly alternate, wider at the base than the top, and are 10 to 40 centimeters (4 to 15.75 inches) long by 5 to 40 centimeters (2 to 15.75 inches) wide. The leaves are toothed and covered in short, rough hairs above. Single heads are borne at the end of branches. Each head generally has 13 to 30 ray flowers that are 2.5 to 5 centimeters (1 to 2 inches) long, and 150 to more than a thousand-disc flowers. Both the ray and disc flowers are yellow (reddish rays in some cultivated forms). The center of the head containing the disk flowers is 1.5 to 2.5 mm (0.6 to 1 inches) wide. The entire head is 4.5 to 10.5 centimeters (1.8 to 4.1 inches) wide, much wider in cultivated forms. The involucral bracts under the head are large and leafy (see photo C). This is one of the larger sunflowers found in North America.

Common Sunflower is an open land species, generally on moist soils. It is a species of prairies and other grasslands, old fields, roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, savannas, and forest edge. It is found across the conterminous U.S., but probably is native to the central and southern portion of the range and Mexico. It is also found as an introduction from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Alaska, and Hawai’i. It is cultivated and has escaped in much of the world.

This species flowers in July to October depending on the part of the country in which it is found. Numerous bees, beetles and rarely butterflies are attracted to this plant. Finches, small mammals and insects eat the seeds. The plant is annual, reseeding itself in to suitable areas.

Many things in the plant world are organized in a manner that follows the Fibonacci series (pine cone scales, individual sections of pineapples, garden rose petals). This series of numbers follows the pattern 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55…, where each successive number is the sum of the previous two. The spiral pattern of the disc flowers/fruits of this species is an example. The fruits are arranged in two groups of spirals, one to the left and one to the right (see center of photo A). If one counts the number of left hand spirals, and then the number of right hand spirals, the two numbers will be neighbors in the series (typically 21 / 34, 34 / 55, or 55 / 89). A web search for ‘Fibonacci series in nature’ will provide links to more information.

For More Information

  • PLANTS Profile – Helianthus annuus, Common Sunflower
  • eFloras-Flora of North America: Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus