Sunflowers: A Species that Changed the World

Sunflower Savvy
By Caron Wenzel,

As a person who writes and journals about plants and gardening, inspiration is, as always, just around the corner. This New Year was no exception. During the holidays I was gifted with a family member who gifted me with a book called Seven Flowers by Jennifer Potter. The book is a very literary approach to how her seven named species changed the world. The plant genus that really caught my eye and captivated me with the beauty, lore and usefulness was the sunflower family.

Helianthus is a new world genus and a member of the Composite family. Evolving in North , South and Central America, it was taken into cultivation some 3260 years ago, more or less, in various locations in the Americas. The sunflower name comes from the observation that sunflower heads follow the progress of the sun across the sky during the day. Vibrant yellow in color and a flower head that resembles the sun with its warm rays gave this plant a “place in the sun” in gardens wherever it was cultivated.

It was an important plant to the Aztec culture and was used as a food staple and a symbolic food crop by the merchant Aztecs at banquets with tobacco as an offering to war gods, along with chocolate and psychotropic mushrooms at feasts, then burned as an offering. Interesting combination of party favors.

True Sunflowers are an important food crop world-wide from North America. They provide in 1 cup: A whopping 580 calories, but…


They are annual flowers that grow from Southern Canada into South America and are the only known pre settlement food crop from North America. They are one of the main sources of vitamin E and are largely known not to induce allergic reactions.

Symbolically, they have been celebrated through art, science and poetry since they were brought to the Old World by the Spanish in the 1500’s. They were always noticed in the garden and were made famous by Vincent Van Gogh, Gaugin and Oscar Wilde, they have become a ubiquitous  visual shorthand representing “happiness”. It must work.

Caron Wenzel is an Environmental Educator, writer, and  the owner of Blazing Star Inc., a 24 year old  native plant seed nursery and consulting business.

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