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Josh Haroldson via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Josh Haroldson via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

10 Glorious Facts About Sunflowers

Josh Haroldson via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Josh Haroldson via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Sunflowers, in all their colorful glory, are a happy sight to behold—but there's more to their nature than just beauty. The multipurpose plants deliver healthy snacks, useful oil, and birdseeds. Let your garden knowledge flourish with these facts about Helianthus Annuus.  

1. THEY'RE NATIVE TO THE AMERICAS.

Like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn, the cheerful plants didn't originate in Europe. They were cultivated in North America as far back as 3000 BCE, when they were developed for food, medicine, dye, and oil. Then, they were exported to the rest of the world by Spanish conquistadors around 1500.

2. THEY WERE BROUGHT TO RUSSIA BY ROYALTY.

Tsar Peter the Great was so fascinated by the sunny flowers he saw in the Netherlands that he took some back to Russia. They became popular when people discovered that sunflower seed oil was not banned during Lent, unlike the other oils the Russian Orthodox Church banned its patrons from consuming. By the 19th century, the country was planting two million acres of sunflowers every year.

3. THEIR POPULARITY STANDS THE TEST OF TIME.

Russian immigrants to the United States in the 19th century brought back highly developed sunflower seeds that grew bigger blooms, and sparked a renewed interest in the native American plant. Later, American sunflower production exploded when Missouri farmers began producing sunflower oil in 1946, when Canada unveiled a mechanical seed-crushing plant, and in the 1970s, when consumers looked for low-cholesterol alternatives to animal fats.

4. THEY NEED A LOT OF RAYS AND ROOM.

The flowers not only look like the sun, they need a lot of it. They grow best with about six to eight hours a day but more is even better. They can grow as tall as 16 feet, although many varieties have been developed to thrive at different heights. Flowers planted too close together will compete and not blossom to their full potential.

5. THEY TRACK THE SUN.

Sunflowers display a behavior called heliotropism. The flower buds and young blossoms will face east in the morning and follow the sun as the earth moves during the day. However, as the flowers get heavier during seed production, the stems will stiffen and the mature flower heads will generally remain facing east.

6. THE WORLD'S TALLEST SUNFLOWER REACHES 30 FEET AND 1 INCH.

In the summer of 2014, Veteran green-thumb Hans-Peter Schiffer toppled the Guinness World Record for third year in a row. The local fire brigade lent its help in measuring the sunflower, which required its own scaffold.

7. THEY HAVE A HISTORY OF HEALING.

In Mexico, the flowers were thought to sooth chest pain. A number of Native American tribes agreed with the plant's curing properties. The Cherokee utilized an infusion of sunflower leaves to treat kidneys while the Dakota brought it out to sooth "chest pain and pulmanery troubles." 

8. THEY HAVE TRAVELED TO SPACE.

In 2012, U.S. astronaut Don Pettit brought along a few companions to the International Space Station: sunflower seeds. Petit regularly blogged about his budding friendship and shared photos of the gardening process. 

9. THEY ARE ACTUALLY THOUSANDS OF TINY FLOWERS.

Each sunflower's head is made of smaller flowers. The petals we see around the outside are called ray florets, and they cannot reproduce. But the disc florets in the middle, where the seeds develop, have both male and female sex organs, and each produce a seed. They can self-pollinate or take pollen blown by the wind or transported by insects. 

10. THEY CAN BE USED AS SCRUBBING PADS.

Once the flower heads are empty of seeds, they can be converting into disposable scrubbing pads for jobs too tough for your cleaning tool.  

Check out this time-lapse video of sunflowers growing from seed to seeds—indoors!

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Afternoon Map
A New NASA Map Shows Spring Is Coming Earlier Each Year
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Climate change is shifting Earth’s seasons. Winters are getting shorter, and the warmth of spring has started to arrive earlier and earlier, messing with the timing of processes like animal migrations and the budding of new plant growth. In a series of graphics spotted by Flowing Data, the NASA Earth Observatory shows how much earlier new leaves are arriving in some parts of the U.S., and how much earlier they reach full bloom.

The data comes from a 2016 study of U.S. national parks, so the maps only cover seasonal changes within the park system. But since there are so many parks spread across the U.S., it’s a pretty good snapshot of how climate change is affecting the timing of spring across the country. The map in green shows the difference in “first leaf” arrival, or when the first leaves emerge from tree buds, and the map in purple shows the arrival of the first blooms.

A map of the U.S. with a colored grid showing where leaves are coming earlier
Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory

Around 75 percent of the 276 parks analyzed in the study have been experiencing earlier springs, and half had recently seen the earliest springs recorded in 112 years. In Olympic National Park in Washington, the first leaves are now appearing 23 days earlier than they did a century ago, while the Grand Canyon is seeing leaves appear about 11 days earlier. National parks in the Sierras and in Utah are seeing leaves appear five to 10 days earlier, as are areas along the Appalachian Trail. Some parks, however, particularly in the South, are actually seeing a later arrival of spring leaves, shown in dark gray in the graphic.

A map of the U.S. with a colored grid showing where blooms are coming earlier
Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory

The places that are witnessing earlier first blooms aren't always the ones with extra-early first leaves. The Appalachian Trail is blooming earlier, even though the first leaves aren't arriving any earlier. But in other places, like Olympic National Park, both the first leaves and the first blooms are arriving far earlier than they used to.

“Changes in leaf and flowering dates have broad ramifications for nature,” National Park Service ecologist John Gross explained in the Earth Observatory’s blog. “Pollinators, migratory birds, hibernating species, elk, and caribou all rely on food sources that need to be available at the right time.” When temperatures get out of sync with usual seasonal changes, those species suffer.

[h/t Flowing Data]

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These Fake Flowers Could Help Scientists Study At-Risk Bees
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If you haven't heard, the world's bees are having a crisis. According to one recent study, bee populations in some areas have plummeted by 75 percent in a quarter of a century. Some countries have introduced legislation banning certain pesticides in response to the news, but solving the complicated problem will likely require much more research. In order to gather better data on bee behavior, one new media artist has developed a machine that can give scientists a bug's-eye view.

As Co.Design reports, Michael Candy's Synthetic Pollenizer is designed to blend into a bee's natural environment. Yellow circles bolted around the opening of the device imitate the petals on a flower. Tubes pump real nectar and pollen into the center of the fake flower, so when bees land on it to feed, they're collecting real reproductive materials they can spread to the next plant they visit.

Candy, who's based in Brisbane, Australia, originally conceived the apparatus as a way for scientists to track the pollinating behaviors of bees. The synthetic flower is outfitted with cameras and dyes, and with enough of them distributed in the wild, researchers could see which bees travel to certain places and how long they stay.

After his concept reached the final round of the Bio Art and Design awards in the Netherlands, Candy decided to create his own prototype with help from an urban beekeeper in Melbourne, Australia. The invention worked: Bees mistook it for real flora and carried pollen from it to their next destination. But to use it for tracking and studying bees on a larger scale, Candy would need to build a lot more of them. The pollinators would also need to be scattered throughout the bees' natural habitats, and since they would each come equipped with a camera, privacy (for nearby residents, not the bees) could become a concern.

Even if the concept never gets the funding it needs to expand, Candy says it could still be used in smaller applications. Fake flowers designed to look like real orchids, for example, could encourage the pollination of endangered orchid species. But for people studying dwindling bee populations, orchids are low on the list of concerns: 30 percent of all the world's crops are pollinated by bees [PDF].

[h/t Co.Design]

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