Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sunflower Dreams

Summer solstice, winter solstice.

One brings the most hours of sunlight, which we soak in. The other brings the most hours of darkness, which gives us time to dream about what might be possible. And when viewed in that light, the darkness of winter solstice is the perfect time to dream about summer sunflowers.

The sunflower story is best told in pairs. Wild and cultivated types, two types of flowers, two types of seeds, and a history that spans two continents. It’s a story of travel and intrigue, Russian religion and Mennonite emigration, and an American native that leaves home and returns again.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot
There are 49 native sunflower species in the genus, Helianthus (from the Greek words, helios for sun and anthos for flower), and the common sunflower (H. annuus) is the one most often seen growing wild in Montana and the western U.S.

The Aster/Sunflower family (Asteraceae) also includes familiar plants like dandelions and artichokes, arnica and balsamroot. It is the largest family of flowering plants in our northern latitudes, with 2,687 species in the U.S. and Canada, and about 19,000 species worldwide.

Throughout this family, what looks like a single large flower is actually a composite of many small flowers. The center is composed of many small “disc” flowers, and the outer ring is made up of one-sided “ray” flowers. Each disc flower has a circle of five tiny petals. But the large petals on each ray flower are fused and hang to one side, and it’s this outer ring of large yellow petals that give sunflowers their familiar “shining sun” appearance. But in sunflowers, the large ray flowers are sterile and don’t produce seeds.

Wild sunflower species have a multitude of small, yellow heads on each stalk, while cultivated sunflowers bear only one large flower per stalk. Sunflowers are carefully cultivated for one of two attributes, high oil content (small, black seeds) or large size (black and white “confectionary” seeds for snacks). And the cultivation of wild sunflowers is at the root of their intriguing history.

Wild sunflowers evolved in North America, and native peoples began eating the seeds for food between 8,000-10,000 years ago. About 4,300 years ago, people began farming sunflowers as a crop in what is now the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. The cultivation of native sunflower plants predates the cultivation of beans, corn and squash.

Heart-leafed Arnica
The small native seeds were eaten individually or ground into a meal. The hulls were brewed to make a coffee-like drink, and the hulls and petals were used to make dyes. Sunflower oil was extracted for cooking, medicine, and hair oil. Sunflower oil is naturally rich in fatty acids, which compliments a diet of lean, wild meat.
Early in the 15th century, European explorers began sailing North American sunflower seeds eastward across the ocean to Europe. They were planted as ornamentals at first, but by 1716 an English patent was issued for pressing the oil from sunflower seeds. And this is when the Russians enter the sunflower story. In the 18th century, Russia’s “Peter the Great” met the American sunflowers growing in Holland, and he returned home with seeds to grow and selectively breed for oil production.

Financial greed? No. Religious accommodation.

The Russian Orthodox Church did not allow its followers to consume oil during Lent. As Peter the Great apparently realized, sunflower oil was new, and therefore not on the church’s banned list. Russian farmers soon up-sized the little flower into the “Mammoth Russian” hybrid, and they were growing more than two million acres of sunflowers by the end of the 18th century.

In the early 19th century, the hybridized Russian sunflowers sailed westward to America. This time around, it crossed the ocean in satchels carried by members of the Russian Mennonite community, who brought their prized sunflower seeds to their new home. (The “Russian Mammoth” hybrid sunflower was offered in American seed catalogs from 1880 until the 1970’s.)

Confectionary sunflower seeds
Back in the U.S., the new sunflower hybrid plants were initially grown for use as chicken and livestock feed. In 1913, the director of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station in Bozeman reported on the Russian hybrid’s, “great promise for irrigated mountain valleys” in the northwest, with plants growing 9-10’ tall and used as silage to fatten Montana cows in winter.

The commercial production of U.S. sunflower seed oil began in 1926, and the Canadian government started its sunflower breeding program in 1930. Mennonite seeds were the original source for both programs.

Today, sunflowers are the world’s second-leading seed crop, behind soybeans. In addition to its original uses, sunflowers are now used to produce biodiesel and to remove heavy metals (including uranium) from polluted water. The Russians grew sunflowers hydroponically to decontaminate the water polluted by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Nowadays, sunflowers are appreciated as inspirational flowers and so much more.

Wild and cultivated winter sunflower stalks
One final observation. The cultivated sunflower is the only crop grown in the northern Great Plains, including eastern Montana, that coexists with its wild, native counterpart (its “congeners” of the Helianthus genus). Most cultivated crops are intentionally grown in places far away from their origins, to avoid the pests (insects and pathogens) that evolved with the native plants. But wild and cultivated sunflowers often live side-by-side.

When dreaming about summer sunflowers, one might wonder about the wild and cultivated cousins watching each other from opposite sides of the fence. One appears to grow at ease, while the other stands at attention in straight rows. One wears many small flower heads, while the other grows one large yellow head. And one has remained on the ancestral homeland, while the other found its way home after being relocated and resized.

Considering their differences, would it be the wild sunflowers or the cultivated sunflowers that dream about what might be possible? There are, after all, two sides to every story.

Wild roadside sunflowers growing near Billings, Montana