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Most Central Texas gardeners don't plant sunflowers in their flower beds

Joy Nord

The sunflower is a tall, leafy plant with bright yellow flowers that bloom in summer and autumn. In Central Texas, it is seen growing along the roadside or a field. A single plant can reach 10 feet in height, with a main stem of 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The flower-heads are 3 1/2 to 6 inches wide and often consist between 1,000 to 2,000 seeds, joined together by a receptacle base. The petals around the edge of the head are individual ray flowers that are usually 1 to 2 inches long and often overlap each other.

The common sunflower belongs to the Daisy family, Compositae (also known as Asteraceae) and is a hardy annual native to the Americas. It's botanical name, Helianthus annuus (annual), comes from the Greek words helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower; since their heads will follow the sun, which is a misconception. Mature flower-heads typically face east and do not move; however, the leaves and buds of young sunflowers do exhibit "sun turning" from east to west during the course of a day.

Nearly 3,000 years ago, Native Americans domesticated the sunflower for food production and other uses. The seeds of wild species were only about 3/8 of an inch long. Over hundreds of years, and through careful selection for larger seeds, the Indians were able to cultivate the sunflowers that are grown commercially today for the making of soap, paint, cosmetics and, of course, food products.

Of the fifty species of native sunflowers found across North America, most of them grow east of the Rockies. In the journals of Lewis and Clark, the explores mentioned the Plains Indians' usage of the sunflower. Tribes would ground the seeds into a flour, and used the oil on their hair. They obtained a dull blue dye from the seeds and a yellow dye from the flower heads to use in traditional basketwork and weaving. The plant also played an important role in Indian burial ceremonies. Bowls filled with sunflower seeds were placed on the graves of their dead to nourish them on their long journey to the "Happy Hunting Ground." The Pimas and Maricopas Indian tribes made chewing gum and candles from the pitch of the stem. Fibers from the stem can be used to make paper.

In the 19th century, many believed that growing sunflowers near a house would protect the occupants from malaria. In the West, when Arbuckles' wasn't available, early pioneers made a coffee substitute from the roasted shells. Tea make from boiled leaves was used to reduce fever and to heal skin damage from screwworms. Rheumatism and snakebites were treated with a tea made from the roots.

Although sunflowers are actually from the Americas, not Greece, that didn't stop the storytellers of Greek mythology. Numerous tales can be found throughout the Internet for such entertainment. My favorite site is:


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