The Many Uses of Sunflowers

| 10/6/2009 10:23:51 AM


Desiree Bell is inspired by botanicals and natural materials. She is a vegetarian who has a certificate in herbal studies and a certificate from Australasian College of Health Sciences in Aromatherapy. When she isn't in her suburban garden, hiking or crafting, she is teaching pre-k with an emphasis on nature and gardening. For more ideas on Simple Living With Nature you can visit her blogs at and

The common sunflower is an American native plant. The American Indian was the first to use the sunflower, but there is no written record. Sunflower achene’s (seeds) have been found at several archaeological sites in the United States and early explorers notebooks and journals have information about Indians gathering achene’s for food. At prehistoric sites in Arizona, several sunflower disks have been found, as well as designs of the flowers incorporated in their pottery.
After the discovery of America in 1492, the sunflower went to Europe, then onto Russia, and was then reintroduced into America from Russia. Practically all the flowers now cultivated in America were of Russian origin. The Russians are the greatest users of the plant.
Sunflowers are known scientifically by the genus name Helianthus from the Greek words helios, meaning “sun” and anthos meaning “flower.” There are around 60 different species, but in this article I am mainly discussing Helianthus annus L. The L. stands for Linnaeus, the great Swedish naturalist of the eighteenth century, who gave this plant and thousands of others their Latin names. This sunflower was the only one known to him and it only lived a single season, so the annuus is for annual.
This species of sunflower is extremely variable. There are branched forms with small flower heads, which are common in the wild. Unbranched forms with massive flower heads, which are cultivated for their oily seeds; and still others with red or double flowers which are grown for their ornamental value.

Photo by cobalt123/Courtesy Flickr

Sunflowers are related to the daisies, asters, marigolds, dandelions and black-eyed susans, all of which are members of the Compositae family. The stem is thick, hairy and light green with leaves that are large, rough, toothed and heart-shaped with prominent veins. The flower has a ray of petals on the outer part of the sunflower head, and disk flowers in the center. The outer apparently to attract insects since they are sterile. Sunflowers grow from 3 to 15 feet high and the flower heads measure from 3 to 14 inches in diameter. The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas.
The first published record of the sunflower appeared in 1568 by the Belgian Rembert Dodoens, one of the famous herbalists of the era. It was not known to herbalists before the discovery of America (1492), which is evidence that the sunflower was of American origin.
The greatest medicinal use of the sunflower that has been used throughout the world is for pulmonary afflictions. It was the main medicinal use of many Indians. A decoction was made from the sunflower head, which the Dakota and Pawnee Indians would drink for respiratory ailments, like bronchitis, lung infections and pleurisy.

Sunflower oil is used in salad dressings, for cooking and in the manufacturing of margarine and shortening. It is used in industry for making paints and cosmetics. The roasted seeds make a coffee type drink. In countries where they grow sunflowers the seed cake that is left after the oil is extracted is given to livestock as food. In the Soviet Union the hulls are used for manufacturing ethyl alcohol, in lining for plywood and growing yeast. The dried stems have also been used for fuel. The stems contain phosphorous and potassium which can be composted and returned to soil as fertilizer.
The Chinese have used the fiber from stems for fabrics and paper. The pith (the interior of the stalk) is one of the lightest substances known and is used in scientific labs. The plant’s ability to absorb water from soil has been used to reclaim mushy land in the Netherlands.
The sunflower is a plant to be valued and appreciated for more than just food for birds or an ornamental fixture in a summer garden. Add a few sunflowers to the next garden you plant and they will put a smile on your face.                              

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