The Story of a Sunflower
BY WILLIAM BLAKE
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travelers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
Sunflowers are a member of the Aster or Composite family and they commonly grow to heights between 1.5 and 3.5 m (5–12 ft). The flower head on a mature sunflower (also referred to as composite flower or florets) has numerous small flowers all crowded together. The outer petal-bearing florets are the sterile florets and can be yellow, red, orange, or other colors. The florets inside the circular head are called disc florets, which mature into seeds. The flower petals within the sunflower’s cluster are usually set in a double-spiral pattern. This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds within the flower head. Sunflowers grow best when planted in rows that align with the axis of Mother Earth. The strange pith in the stalk when alive is the lightest known, and when dry becomes hard as rock.
The sunflower, an important, high-energy food source, is believed to have originated in the Americas. Evidence suggests that the plant was cultivated by Indians in present-day Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 BC. Many indigenous American peoples used the sunflower as the symbol of their solar deity, including the Aztecs and the Otomi of Mexico and the Incas in South America.
Some archaeologists explore the notion that sunflower may have been domesticated before corn. In some Indian legends Sunflower is referred to as the “fourth sister”, the other sisters being the corn, bean and squash.
Sunflowers were considered by some North American Indians as the symbol of courage, therefore warriors would carry sunflower cakes with them to battle or, when they went hunting, they would sprinkle sunflower powder on their clothes to recharge and keep up their spirit. Men also ate the seeds for “strength in love,” as they were a good source of arginine, which increased potency.
Sunflower seeds used as sustenance were ground or pounded into flour for cakes, mashed or made into bread. As a meal it would sometimes be mixed with other vegetables such as beans, squash, and corn. And much like today, the seeds were used as nutritional snack in between meals.
The oil derived from the sunflower seeds, aside from its nutritional function, it had also cosmetic and medicinal properties. It was a good source for attaining and maintaining smooth skin and hair as well as being made into a poultice for the treatment anything ranging from snake and spider bites to various skin ailments.
When the squashed sunflower seeds were combined with peppermint and thyme they delivered soothing relief of pain. The seeds were also essential component in easing the pain of the menstrual cycle of females. It was considered helpful due to the Sun having a daily cycle which kept them warm and helped to grow food and all medicinal plants.
We now know that sunflower seeds are considered to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, diuretic and expectorant properties. Sunflower leaves can be used as an infusion to treat high fevers, lung problems and diarrhea.
They can help reducing the symptoms of asthma, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis and help in cases of bronchial, pulmonary and laryngeal problems as well as controlling high blood pressure and migraine headaches. The sunflower plant contains one of the best sources of phenylalamine, helpful in the control of pain, and is a rich source of vitamin E.
The seeds, rich in phytosterols, reduce cholesterol levels and improve overall heart health. With high levels of magnesium counterbalance calcium, it helps to regulate nerve function. The substantial content of the amino acid, tryptophan, meanwhile enhances serotonin production and thus improves mood and alleviates depression. Sounds like a wonder seed? Well, I think it is; hence the reason for its timeless popularity.
Back in the old days different varieties of the Sunflower were also cultivated to produce purple and yellow dyes for textiles, body painting and other decorations. The plant and the seeds were widely used in ceremonies. Meanwhile, the dried stalk was used as a building material.
Common sunflower or a ga li ha, is a sacred plant that appears in many Indian myths and stories. The Cherokee talked of this naming and its relationship. It is said in one story that the sunflower came from Anthoteknon after Disocuri spilled ambrosia on his grave and he arose as a sunflower.
In another Native American Indian legend, salmon when caught were always laid upon the stems and leaves of the sunflower plant. This may have something to do with the pulling up of the plant, which may also have been interpreted as some kind of doorway.
Mystified? A quote from G. T. Garrett in his book can perhaps serve as the brief explanative: “The Cherokee Herbal: Native Plant Medicine from the Four Directions,” “the East was considered an “open door,” the direction we are born into this life to meet the Sun. Conversely, the West, the direction of death and passing from this world to the netherworld of our ancestors, was considered the “back door,” with the spirit guides as the gatekeepers to the “darkened land.” The sacred teachings teach us therefore that life and death were experiences of the spirit moving through a doorway or portal, from which we continue our journey.” The sunflower turns its head following the sun as it moves from east to west across the sky.
The Americas had long enjoyed the many benefits of the sunflower when in the 1500’s the Spanish adventurers chanced on this great find purely by accident. The first European to encounter the sunflower was Francisco Pizarro in Tahuantinsuyo, Peru. In the early 16th Century he took golden images of the flower as well as the actual seeds back to Spain. Deemed a strange flower, it was at first mainly used as a decoration.
By 1716, an English patent was granted for squeezing oil from sunflower seed. However, this was never regarded as an edible plant till it traveled to Russia. By 1830, the manufacture of sunflower oil was done on a commercial scale. It took Russia by a storm and Russian farmers were soon engaged in growing vast numbers of these sunflowers. The use of sunflower oil became very popular, particularly with members of the Russian Orthodox Church, because sunflower oil was one of the few oils that were allowed during Lent.
To date seeds of the large-seeded varieties are enjoyed my many as a nutritional snack. Roasted in the same manner as coffee, they make an agreeable drink, and the seeds have been used in Portugal and Russia to make wholesome and nutritious bread.
The oil pressed from the seeds is of a citron yellow color and a sweet taste and is considered equal to olive oil or almond oil for table use. The resulting oil-cake when warm pressed is used mainly for soap-making, candle-making and in the art of wool-dressing. As a drying oil for mixing paint, it is equal to linseed oil and is great as a lubricant for massages.
Then the residue after the oil is pressed is used as cattle-fodder. This form of oil-cake is relished by sheep, pigs, and poultry. Even the damaged, bruised sunflower seeds are utilized to make excellent chicken and fowl feed, as it’s believed to increase egg productivity. Is it any wonder that Sunflowers are currently grown in many parts of the world such as Russia, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Egypt, India, China and Japan?
Oh, and it makes an excellent addition for your garden as they are delightfully sturdy and beautiful just as flowers.
Another Poem to enjoy:
are named well
for they, like the sun,
give joy to those who feel their radiance
it is as if
nature heard all of the children’s joyful shouts
in the meadow-
the grass moving in the wind,
like a great emerald dragon-
and wove their shouts
into a flower
that the children would pot
and water with love
and the sunflowers would thrive
to be the smiles on cloudy days
(Author: The Poems Within, who noted “I wrote this poem for a contest on Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflower painting. The painting inspired me to write this poem.”)
Sunflowers, 1888., by Vincent Van Gogh