2021 was declared the ‘Year of the Sunflower’ – and perhaps now more than ever the world needs a bright, sunny flower that is a symbol of positivity.
Helianthus annuus, commonly known as sunflower, is an annual species producing round, daisy-like flower heads of yellow petals with dark centres and is one of the most easily recognizable flowers in the world. Native to the Americas, the wild plants are widely branching and produce multiple flower heads, while in comparison, the iconic domesticated sunflower has only a single flower head atop a tall, unbranched stem. The tallest sunflower on record was grown in Germany in 2014, and achieved 9.17 metres!
First cultivated by indigenous American peoples as early as 2300 BC, sunflowers were thought to represent their solar deity. Each flower head can produce up to 1,000-2,000 edible seeds. The seeds were brought to Europe from the Americas by early Spanish explorers during the 1500s, where, along with sunflower oil, they became a prevalent cooking ingredient.
Over the next few centuries, sunflower popularity spread to the Asian and African continents as well, quickly gaining momentum around the world. Various cultures embraced the vibrant blooms for different reasons, some even incorporating its symbolism into their religion. Today, sunflowers are thought to represent a wide variety of notions, from health and happiness to hope and prosperity. Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh’s world-renowned still-life series of sunflowers are so famous, the Van Gogh Museum partnered with the breeder of Sunrich sunflowers to establish a “Van Gogh’s Favourite” variety.
Sunflowers continue to be largely grown as a crop, as well as ornamentals, with hybrids now available in varying sizes and colours. In addition, the fields upon fields of cheery, yellow flowers have also become wildly popular backdrops for wedding and fashion photographers.
Single stem varieties are best for mass planting in garden beds or as cut flowers, while branching varieties are ideal for planting in pots and containers. Quick and easy to grow, dwarf sunflower varieties such as Eos or Teddy are great for children and perform best in well-draining soil. They require at least 6 hours of sunlight daily and removing the spent flower heads promotes new growth.