As I looked up its towering stalk, I saw the plant’s bulbous face droop down to look back at me. Its dried black seeds stared like hundreds of little eyes. If I jumped and swatted, I could knock some of the seeds onto the ground, where I was sure the birds would eat them. It might seem cruel to think about hitting a sunflower, but I was maybe thirteen. And it was taller than me. And of course I didn’t do it.
This giant sunflower from my childhood garden was Helianthus annuus, or the common sunflower. At about eight feet tall, though, it looked anything but common to me. It was most likely a type of the species known as a “Mammoth Sunflower.” There are a number of different common sunflowers, selectively bred for looks and purposes, but all originating from the same species. These varieties are what’s known as “cultivars,” and most of the plants you eat have been selectively bred for desired traits this same way.
Of Humans and Sunflowers. Humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals since prehistory, at the advent of domestication. Sunflowers are no different. Native to North America, Helianthus annuus was first domesticated in present-day Mexico over 4,500 years ago. Many varieties were then cultivated by Indigenous Peoples for thousands of years, eventually spreading across the globe. Wild species still remain throughout North America, though, and they’re important plants for pollinators, as well as for farmers interested in crossbreeding for new traits.
Most sunflowers are bred for ornamental purposes. You’ll see them in a summer flower vase or in an autumn bouquet. Others are bred for their seeds, which can be used to fill bird feeders, in sunflower cooking oil, and as my dad’s favorite road trip snack.
Some look just like a classic sunflower, such as the “Suntastic Yellow” or “Pacino” varieties—medium-sized flowers with yellow petals and a black center. Others are massive plants, like my childhood Mammoth. Some come in colorful and strange shapes. The “Teddy Bear” is a round, fuzzy flower that really looks more like a marigold. The “Autumn Beauty” has reds and oranges framing its yellow petals, whereas the “Moulin Rouge” is fully crimson-purple. There are countless more varieties, with more being born each year. Yet all are technically the same species.
Sunflowers have long been an important symbol for humans. The Incas used them in worship, to symbolize the sun. The flowers were famously painted by Vincent Van Gough, and appear in many other artworks. Sunflowers have even been a symbol of resistance and hope; the most recent example being in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year—the sunflower is Ukraine’s national flower, and those who wear, fly, or otherwise showcase an image of the striking plant may be demonstrating support for the besieged country. That’s a lot for one flower, but this is a flower that can handle a lot.
Following the Sun. One might think that sunflowers get their name for their resemblance to the sun. This may be partly true, but the name mainly refers to a strange phenomenon the plants go through. Before the flower blooms, its head will gradually turn to face the sun. The head follows the sun throughout the day, and then repositions itself eastward at night to anticipate the rising sun again. This is caused not by the flower itself moving, but by the stem. When the sun is in the east, the eastern side of the stem grows the most. This pushes the flowerhead westward throughout the day, and the process is reversed as the western side of the stem grows from the sunlight. Once the flower blooms, this process (known as heliotropism) slows down and stops. The flower will then face east permanently, where it catches the rising sun and entices pollinators with the warmth.
Growing and Picking Sunflowers. Here in Michigan, sunflowers are a widely cultivated plant. It’s not hard to grow them yourself. Plant seeds in the late spring, and with plenty of sun they’ll take off. Small cultivars do well in pots, whereas the towering varieties really need to be planted in the ground. However, it’s a little late in the year for that now. Now, in late summer, it’s the perfect time to pick sunflowers.
There are “U-Pick” sunflower farms all over Michigan. Many of these farms provide the tools you need (really just a pair of clippers), and charge by the flower.
I recently visited Bremer Produce, a U-Pick sunflower farm in Hudsonville. Flowers were $1 a stem or $10 a bouquet, and you could even get a mason jar as a vase. While I made the mistake of going on a cloudy day, the field of bright sunflowers was still magnificent. They had several different types to choose from, all of which were beautifully cultivated. And while I’m no florist, when I put my bouquet in a vase at home, it didn’t look half bad.
While many people were there to pick flowers, others were there to take photos or simply walk through the yellow field. And even with the clouds overhead, the paths held some kind of peaceful magic—being surrounded by sunflowers is an impressive kind of feeling.
If you’re looking for a late-summer activity, and want a nice bouquet on your dining room table, grab a pair of clippers and explore the sunflower. The timeless garden classic is a reminder that the simplest of things have more story and intrigue than meets the eye.