COMMON SUNFLOWER (Helianthus annuus)

Ricoh DC 4U

Sunflower, 15th May 2011, RF’s Highbury garden

The Americas

The sunflower is an annual. It has a tall fibrous stem that may reach over 3 metres, stiff leaves and a large flowerhead with a central disc from which radiate multiple petals. Tiny flowers spiral round the disc and are visited by bees; after pollination each flower becomes a seed which is rich in oil & pecked up by the birds.

Its likeness to the sun led to the Sunflower’s name – helios from the Greek for Sun, & anthos for flower.

Sunflowers ‘follow the sun’ (heliotropism). A young flower will face the sun when it rises in the east. As the sun moves across the sky through the day, the Sunflower turns to follow it. When the sun sets in the west, the Sunflower is facing west. Overnight, it turns back to the east. Older flowers lose this ability to turn.

 Sunflower seeds are rich in Vitamins B & E. The colour range of Sunflower cultivars ranges from YELLOW through ORANGE to REDS & RED-PURPLES.

Records for sunflowers have included the tallest (25 ft (750 cm) tall, grown in the Netherlands) the largest sunflower head (32 1/2 in (80 cm) across, grown in Canada) & the shortest (just over 2 in (50mm) tall, grown in Oregon using the Bonsai technique.


 Here are two websites with easy to follow instructions for growing Sunflowers from seed:

When choosing your variety of sunflower, be sure that your chosen cultivar has not been bred to be pollen-free. In a wildlife garden, this is not what we want. One garden website offering 45 separate sunflower seed varieties has, for example, some pollen-free ones as well as a variety new for 2018 – Hopi Black Dye. Blooms produce plenty of nectar & pollen. Dark hulls of the seeds were traditionally used to make lavender, purple, maroon, blue, and black dyes for baskets and cloths.


Bees’ Favourite.

Growing sunflowers for bees, birds and other wildlifeThe brightly coloured petals shout “Oi! Over here!” to bees and other pollinators like hoverflies, directing them to the central spirals of the sunflower. These are formed of many hundreds of small tubular flowers, packed with nectar and pollen. The insects get covered in pollen as they feed. Pollination by wild bumblebees and bee species with longer tongues especially helps the plant produce more quality seed.”                                                                           Paul de Zylva, Senior Campaigner on Nature at Friends of the Earth



 Find tips for growing sunflowers on the Friends of the Earth webpage, including RHS Perfect for PollinatorsHelianthus annuus (Common sunflower) and Helianthus debilis (Cucumber leaf sunflower). FOE‘s Bee Cause Campaign has 28 great plants for bees – “as well as flowers, think of herbs, fruit, vegetables, shrubs & trees – they can all provide nectar when they are in flower.”


 The Goulson Lab at the University of Sussex includes the sunflower on its excellent website, The best garden flowers for bees. Prof Dave Goulson is founder of The Bumblebee Trust & author of A Sting in the Tale

B5 Baytree Corner - Sunflowers, reds of Lobelia, Bishop of Llandaff

Sunflower cultivation, for oil and food, has a history that began with Native Americans and owes much to the Russians and the Europeans.



“The leaves are used for fodder; the flower for its yellow dye. The seeds are eaten as a food, and yield an oil… which reduces the cholesterol level of the blood. The Indians used the oil as a hair grease, and warm, as a rub for rheumatic parts. The baked roots were also used, as a poultice, in rheumatism and arthritis, bruises and contusions. The entire plant was holy to the sunworshippers of Peru & was used in religious ceremonies.”

Jeanne Rose’s Herbal, HERBS & THINGS, Grosset & Dunlap, Workman Publishing Company, New York 1972.


Native Americans and the Sunflower

Some Native American tribes used the sunflower as a source of yellow and orange dye for fabric. It was known medicinally for its antimalarial properties. Sunflowers were seen as symbolic of courage by some native peoples, & warriors carried sunflower cakes with them into battle.

The sunflower originated in South & Central America & migrated north, most likely due to the migration of Spanish conquistadors. Remains of sunflowers dating back 4,600 years have been found in Mexico. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers took sunflowers back to Europe with them, & the species has spread around the world since then.

Native Americans Domesticate the Sunflower

” The American Indian first domesticated the sunflower into a single headed plant with a variety of seed colors including black, white, red, & black/white striped. Evidence suggests that the plant was cultivated by American Indians in present-day Arizona & New Mexico about 3000 BC.

    “Sunflower was used in many ways throughout the various American Indian tribes. Seed was ground or pounded into flour for cakes, mush or bread. Some tribes mixed the meal with other vegetables such as beans, squash, & corn. The seed was also cracked & eaten for a snack. There are references of squeezing the oil from the seed & using the oil in making bread.”

Non-food uses include purple dye for textiles, body painting & other decorations. The oil of the seed was used on skin & hair. The dried stalk was used as a building material. “


Sunflowers Travel the World

” Taken to Europe by Spanish explorers some time around 1500, the plant became widespread throughout present-day Western Europe – mainly as an ornamental, but some medicinal uses were developed. By 1716, an English patent was granted for squeezing oil from sunflower seed.

Sunflower became very popular as a cultivated plant in Russia in the 18th century. Most of the credit is given to Peter the Great. Initially used as an ornamental, by 1769 cultivated sunflower oil production is mentioned in the literature. By 1830, the manufacture of sunflower oil was done on a commercial scale. ”

The National Sunflower Association (USA)

Here in the Highbury Wildlife Garden, sunflower seeds are favourite foods for sparrows & other small birds. We buy ready shelled seed as well as black sunflower seeds in their shells, & there are feeders for those seeds. Black sunflowers seeds have more oil than striped seeds, and are favourites with the birds.

Monika, who lived here before I moved in, persuaded RF to try growing sunflowers in the garden. They would be wonderful to look at, & birds could eat the seeds. He did his best, planting seeds year after year.



Sunflowers did grow from the seeds – usually on stalks that were 6ft or taller – but the plants were always brought down by squirrels just as the seeds ripened. Captured flowerheads were bitten off & dragged to the top of the brick wall, where all seeds were devoured.

If you want to grow sunflowers, first look at your area to see if it has a strong squirrel population. If it has, you may need to adopt a cunning plan to outwit them & save your sunflowers.

Sunflowers have gone from North America to Europe to Russia, from there to the USA & Canada, then back to Europe… Here at our garden we currently get sunflower seeds by mail order in large sacks from two suppliers: Little Peckers in Hertfordshire who import their sunflower seed from Bulgaria, & the RSPB.

Little Peckers Unit 1, The 10 Centre, Hearle Way, Hatfield, Herts AL10 9EWUK phone o8ooo 933221


RSPB sunflower hearts are grown as close to home as possible, from European black seeds. Other hearts might come from as far away as China, Argentina or America (they’ve got many more miles on the clock) and lost their protective coat long ago. The RSPB sunflower heart is greener, plump, nutritious and in tip-top condition.”