Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 15, 2006

Happy faces

Each year when sunflowers crop up along the roads, I can't resist taking pictures of them. But as of last week, I hadn't yet done so. But when younger daughter Katie and I were on our way to town one day, she told me I HAD to stop to get pictures of them. I smiled. Perhaps my photo obsession has rubbed off or maybe she's as enamored with sunflowers as I am - or maybe she's just humoring me.

Then husband Art sent me a text message suggesting I write a column about sunflowers.

Wisconsin-born and bred, Art said he remembers seeing only one or two sunflowers every year during his childhood. There was little or no commercial interest in the plant then, so no farmers in his area planted them and the winters were apparently too cold for them to grow naturally. But his neighbor John had an extensive garden and every year at the edge of the plot, he planted two sunflower seeds, hoping that at least one survived. John told Art he planted them to use the seeds to feed birds. Art thinks it had more to do with John being enthralled by the towering plants - the way they faced the sun when they were young and how the large heads hung down when they were mature.

Art saw the wild ones for the first time when he moved to Kansas in 1971 and said that although he found them less impressive because of their smaller height and head, the multiple blooms that seemed to spring up everywhere more than made up for their more diminutive size.

So Art's and Katie's comments prompted me to do some research on the Kansas state flower.

From the CyberSpace Farm Web site, an educational project of Kansas Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE), I discovered that helianthus annuus - the sunflower's Latin name - is a North American native.

Nearly 3,000 years ago, the sunflower was domesticated for food production by Native Americans in the southwest United States. Sunflower seeds were ground into flour, cracked and eaten and squeezed for oil which was used in making bread. The Native Americans also used the plant to make purple dye and the stalks were used as a building material. Lewis and Clark mentioned sunflower usage by Plains Indians in their journals.

Much like the potato, the sunflower was transported from North America to Europe by Spanish explorers and widely cultivated there as an ornamental plant. In Europe, it was never viewed as a food plant until it reached Russia, where by 1830, sunflower oil was being commercially manufactured.

The first commercial use of the sunflower in the United States was as silage feed for poultry.

Sunflower acreage spread from Canada, into Minnesota, the Dakotas and Kansas in the 1970s.

Because they are high in protein, the seeds are used as snacks, in salads and cooking and also for bird seed. Sunflower oil is the world's third most important vegetable oil, next to soybean oil and palm oil. The part remaining after the seeds have been processed is used as a livestock feed.

Probably the most unusual use of sunflowers was described on the CyberSpace Farm site:

"Floating rafts of sunflowers are being used to clean up water contaminated as a result of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former Soviet Union. The roots of the sunflower plants remove 95% of the radioactivity in the water by pulling contaminants out of the water."

When I shared some of this sunflower trivia with Art, he said that while he found the information interesting, he just likes the way he's drawn to the flowers' seemingly happy little faces along the roadways. And, while learning these things made me admire our state flower more than ever, I, too, just like the way their sunny color makes me smile.

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