When I was tiny, every year my grandparents would take us into the garden to plant sunflowers. They were (and still are) prolific gardeners, with stunning beds and borders and a huge vegetable patch at the side of the house. As soon as the signs of spring began, they would be outside, preparing the garden for that year’s flowers. Sadly, their green fingers were not genetic, and I didn’t inherit their gardening skills (proven by my garden full of weeds and flowers which, despite my best efforts, are half-dead). What I did inherit, though, was a love for the colourful and an appreciation for sunflowers.
When you’re five, no one grows better or bigger sunflowers than your grandparents. I remember the huge stalks and wide heads, almost big enough to block out the sun, towering over me as I posed for a photo in the garden. Even perched on my grandad’s shoulders, I was still shorter than the giant flowers.
Today, my love for sunflowers has only grown. Every year my mother receives a bunch of sunflowers for mother’s day and I’ve even got a miniature sunflower tattooed on my ankle. When I received a packet of sunflower seeds in the post, along with a note written in my Nana’s handwriting, I was excited to plant some of my own and terrified that I’d accidentally kill them.
It was at that point that I realised, despite planting sunflowers with my grandparents and doing it umpteen times at nursery and school, that I had no idea how to grow sunflowers. So I took to Google to figure it out. While I discovered how to grow sunflowers (included at the end of this post), I also learnt that the sunflower had a vibrant history which I’d never known before.
The History of the Sunflower
Sunflowers aren’t just beautiful, they’re also incredibly useful, which made them a prevailing feature of many ancient cultures. The sunflower was one of the earliest domesticated plants and was farmed for food extensively by Native American Indians in the USA and the Aztec people in Mexico. It wasn’t just the seeds that early people wanted – the oil that the seeds produced was used to make bread as well as nourish hair and skin. Sunflowers were also used to dye fabric, skin and objects shades of blue and purple. Some cultures used sunflowers for medicinal purposes and the even leftover stalks could be dried and used as a building material.
Sunflowers played a hugely important role in these societies and many ancient Mexican people worshiped these flowers and the large, vibrant heads were often used in ceremonies as headdresses. In some places, sunflowers made their way to temples and other places of worship and were often referred to as “shield flower” thanks to their resemblance to an Aztec shield. Sunflower seeds (or achenes) were found in an archaeological site in San Andrés, Mexico, which dated back to earlier than 2600 BC, showing just how popular and abiding these flowers are.
The sunflower made its way to Europe after being discovered by Spanish Explorers in the 1500s, where it became prevalent thanks to its use as an ornamental plant and the oil that could be squeezed from the seeds. It had an explosion in popularity when Russian Tsar Peter the Great came across sunflowers in Holland and was instantly enamoured, bringing them back to Russia. They soon became far more than ornamental when sunflower oil was not included in the lists of food that the Russian Orthodox Church had banned during Lent. This meant that the sunflower took Russian society by storm, and by the 19th Century there were over 2 million acres of sunflowers being grown in Russia alone.
This boom in sunflower demand led to an increase in breeding and research into how to create the sunflowers with the highest yields of oil and seeds. Real sunflower cultivation began, with farmers and breeders racing to create the biggest and best specimens. At this stage, the sunflower (typically the ‘Mammoth Russian’ variety) made its way back to the USA with Russian immigrants in the late 1800s. For many years, sunflowers failed to find the same popularity in the US that they had once had and were largely ornamental – or used as chicken feed. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the US market realised just how profitable growing sunflowers could be, and the market flourished.
The need for high-yield, cost effective crops led to increased experimentation and hybridisation across the globe. During The Spanish Civil War and later, World War II, European demand for sunflower oil skyrocketed due to the shortage of olive oil. In the 70s, consumption increased as people began to become concerned about the amount of cholesterol in their diet. Today, sunflower products are still a key component of modern diets around the world.
Sunflowers are used all over the world, and are one of the most popular ornamental blooms. Their large, brightly coloured heads have inspired myths, art and stories all around the globe. The ancient Greeks told a myth of the water nymph named Clytie who was so enamoured with the Sun god Helios (or Apollo, in some stories) that she gazed up at him when he passed across the sky in his chariot, neither eating or drinking, until she was transformed into a sunflower. Some tell that Clytie simply wilted away into the flower, while others say that Helios cursed her as punishment or that the rest of the gods transformed her through pity.
Folklore states that sunflowers turn to follow the path of the sun through the sky, but this isn’t strictly speaking true. While sunflower buds do follow the sun (known as heliotropism), once the plant has bloomed this stops. This idea, plus the bright yellow blooms, give the sunflower its name – Helianthus Annuus (literally, sun flower).
In floriography (the language of flowers), Sunflowers have a huge variety of meanings. In some cases, they reflect pride or even “haughtiness” but others use them as symbols of dedication. In China, sunflowers are lucky and are associated with health and vitality. During the cold war, sunflowers became a symbol of peace, and protesters known as The Missouri Peace Planters broke into ten nuclear silos and planted sunflowers to encourage nuclear disarmament.
The most famous sunflowers of all are probably found in Vincent Van Gogh’s series of paintings between 1887 and 1889. These brightly coloured pieces, often heavily featuring blue and yellow, are some of the artist’s most beloved paintings and are popular all over the world. In 1987, one of the paintings was purchased for a staggering $39,921,750 – a record breaking amount at the time. Van Gogh described his relationship with the flowers best himself – “I have the sunflower, in a way.”
So, then, how can you grow some of these famous flowers in your own garden?
How to Plant Sunflowers
- Sunflower seeds can be sowed directly into the ground once the threat of sudden spring frosts has passed, between mid-April and the end of May. Alternatively, you can plant them in 3” plastic plant pots indoors and transfer them outside once the weather warms up.
- Choose where you’re going to grow your sunflowers. It’s important that sunflowers have enough shelter to grow as strong winds can knock them down! Near a wall or fence is best.
- Make sure the soil is ready by removing weeds, stones and garden debris using a trowel or hand fork.
- Rake the soil and make drills (holes) no more than an inch deep for the seeds. Sunflowers need plenty of room to grow, so make sure you plant them around 10cm apart.
- Gently place your seeds, one per drill, into the ground and cover them with soil. Give them a gentle watering.
- Once seedlings have emerged, you can protect them from slugs other garden creepy crawlies by cutting the top off of a plastic bottle and placing it over them, like a homemade cloche.
- As your sunflowers grow, they can become crowded. Remove the weaker flowers, leaving the strong seedlings around 45cm apart.
- Once your sunflowers grow tall, you need to support them stem to stop it from toppling over. Insert a bamboo cane into the soil next to your sunflower and loosely tie the stem to the cane using string.
- And that’s it! Watch in wonder as your sunflowers grow. You can race to see who can grow the tallest sunflower.
- At the end of the season, the fun continues as you can harvest your own sunflower seeds! You can either wait until the seeds are fully ripened and simply rub the seeds from the head, blowing away the chaff, or harvest earlier and store the head in a paper bag in a warm place to dry. Once your seeds have dried, you can store them in a sealed, airtight container. Seeds stored in a fridge or freezer can last for a year, and those stored in a cupboard or pantry last a few months.
Growing sunflowers is, thankfully, pretty easy. These gorgeous flowers really bring colour to beds and borders and are a great way to encourage children to go outside and get messy in the garden. For the more adventurous, you can even build structures like dens and walls out of sunflowers! For me, I think I’ll be happy planting a row of sunflowers next to my fence where I can see them from my conservatory.
If you’ve planted your own sunflowers this season, send us your photos so we can see who’s managed to grow the biggest bloom!
Lotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.