Monday, September 15, 2014

Recreating History in Our Own Backyard

This has been a good year for sunflowers (aka Helianthus) at our homestead – both the ones that sprang spontaneously from our fallen feeder birdseed, and those that Mars intentionally sowed for the first time this year.

The unplanned ones have been a regular part of our summer landscape ever since we began enticing feathered passers-by to stop awhile and graze at our all natural, all seeds, all-you-can-eat, hanging buffet – which I guess technically makes them planned every year after the first one.
Anyway this year’s crop, as usual, was high in quantity and, as usual, pretty mediocre in quality – at least from my human perspective.  The flowers were small, the stems were short, and the colors (at the height of their glory) ran somewhere between an amazingly drab mustard hue and the very faded sepia tint of very old photographs.  Finches and some sparrows nonetheless seem to find something to devour from within the flower’s head even as their slight weight bent the plant’s anorexic stalks to the ground.  The seeds from whence these plants developed are residents of the lowest level of Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  And the squirrels and birds that subsist on these ovules ecstatically love them just the way they are. 
Mars and I can get all of the sunflower oil and seeds that we consume at our local Trader Joe’s store.  And as much as we get a kick out of the mini sunflower forest that springs up on our front yard each annum, and have no inclination to curtail its future growth, we now have loftier expectations of the Helianthus that appear on our property.   Which is why Mars planted a few of the more decorative seeds behind our meager tomato patch, in the midst of one of our tall perennial beds. 
We were asking a lot – considering where we put them and how much care we would give them.  But hey, just by itself one sunflower is probably more complicated and harder working than all the perennials combined in our laissez-faire landscape.
“The sunflower is a composite flower; several hundred smaller flowers act together to create the illusion of one massive flower. These smaller flowers are referred to as florets, and they create the head -- or brown center -- of the sunflower. The yellow petals of a sunflower are leaves. These leaves act as protection for the brown center of the sunflower during the growing process. The numerous flowers that make up the brown center grow independently of one another. From this center, new sunflower seeds form.” (
And it definitely has more gardening experience than the two of us – beginning in 3,000 BC when the plant was domesticated into a single-headed flower by the Indians of the southwest United States (Arizona and New Mexico). 
“Seed was ground or pounded into flour for cakes, mush or bread. Some tribes mixed the meal with other vegetables such as beans, squash, and corn. The seed was also cracked and eaten for a snack. There are references of squeezing the oil from the seed and using the oil in making bread.” (
All parts of the sunflower were put to use.  The seeds were grown in a variety of colors – black, white, red, and black/white striped – and were used make dyes for textiles and body painting.  The oil was used medicinally and in baking. And the dried stalk served as a building material.
Spanish explorers brought the plant to Europe in the 1500s. “The plant was initially used as an ornamental, but by 1769 literature mentions sunflower cultivated by oil production. By 1830, the manufacture of sunflower oil was done on a commercial scale. The Russian Orthodox Church increased its popularity by forbidding most oil foods from being consumed during Lent. However, sunflower was not on the prohibited list and therefore gained in immediate popularity as a food.   By the early 19th century, Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of sunflower.”
In the late 1800s Russian immigrants brought the sunflower back to the United States where seed companies began advertising “Mammoth Russian” sunflowers in their catalogs.  (In our hometown of Wethersfield, CT Comstock-Ferre Seeds (now a part of Baker’s Creek) offers them.)
Mars and I are not sure what variety we planted, or from where they came.  (It most likely was a thank you gift from one of the non-profits that we support.)  In any event we planted them when we put in the tomatoes – Memorial Day weekend as required by law in New England – and around Labor Day three yellow-headed eight-footers towered over the tomatoes and their perennial playmates along the south side of our garage.  A fourth one is slightly shorter and requires a little help from a plastic stake and some Velcro in order to stand erect.  But all of them have faces that are as close to the Platonic ideal of sunflower beauty as is humanly possible.
Plus the bees love them – as do Mars and I.  Them, walking delicately from stamen to stamen, and then flying off with pollen-laden legs to return again the next day. 
Us from a distance, in a more visual way.
With help from our feathered diners Mars and I have unwittingly created a life-sized diorama of Helianthus history right in our own backyard.
How cool is that?


No comments: