Sunflowers are some of the most vibrant and globally admired flowers. True to their name, variants of these flowers take on the bright nature of the sun. No wonder an artist like Vincent Van Gogh spent much time dedicating paintings to these flowers. The bright sunflower head with its beautiful sunflower leaves and dark brown center can instantly elevate one’s mood. Read on for two handfuls of interesting sunflower facts.
Related: For more sunny flower inspiration, check out our curation of the best sunflower quotes, sure to brighten up your day if you can’t get outside to experience the real thing
This might be a bit of a shock, especially given we primarily associate all flowers in this category with yellow. However, these popular flowers come in wide varieties and colors.
Sunflowers belong to the genus Helianthus which consists of 70 species. As a result, it’s no surprise that they come in diverse ranges. Apart from the cheerful and vibrant yellow of the common sunflower that we’re accustomed to, we also have purple sunflowers, brown sunflowers, orange sunflowers, red sunflowers, and more.
Beyond red roses, many other flowers are red, including red sunflowers. The common flower, Helianthus Annuus, is a fast-growing and tall annual plant with hairy leaves and stems.
You'll notice something intriguing if you move up close to the sunflower and take in the flower’s details. The flower heads consist of thousands of tiny flowers.
Within the flower head, in the middle, the petals are called disc florets, where seeds develop. The disc florets of tiny individual flowers have female and male sex organs and can produce sunflower seeds. Around sunflower heads, on the outside, the long colorful petals are also individual ray flowers, called ray florets.
Unlike the disc florets, the ray florets can’t produce sunflower seeds. They also don’t reproduce. The thousands of flowers on a sunflower’s head stay in place together by a receptacle base. This sunflower fact might just mean you have something new to explore when you next pick up a sunflower.
Native to the American region, people saw the value in the sunflower plant a long time back. Today, farmers still plant and harvest sunflowers for various purposes, including sunflower seeds and sunflower oil. People plant and cultivate some species to serve as ornamentals.
Around 3000 B.C., Native Americans were the primary cultivators of the sunflower plant. The regions they occupied are now present-day New Mexico and Arizona. Native Americans used sunflowers in many ways. They used the sunflower seed as food and flower heads for medicinal purposes.
Presently, North Dakota is one of the leading regions for sunflower production. These flowering plants require at least six hours of daily direct sunlight and soil PH levels of 6 to 7.5 making the region perfect for sunflower cultivation.
Young sunflowers need to get their daily sun intake. When younger, sunflowers exhibit a behavior called heliotropism. This entails flower buds and young blossoms tracking the sun’s direction throughout the day. As a result, you’ll find that young blossoms face the east in the morning and then follow the sun as the day goes by. As the sun sets in the west, these plants slowly turn eastward. This behavior initiates the beginning of the cycle again.
Science reveals that these young plants follow a natural circadian rhythm1, enabling them to get enough light for photosynthesis. So, from sunrise to sunset, you’ll notice that young growing sunflowers follow the sun all day. This continues until maturity.
Sunflowers come in many shapes, sizes and heights. They also have varying bloom sizes, with some having single stalks and others with multiple branching. With proper care, sunlight and moisture, sunflowers reach various heights depending on the species.
Generally, we have two types of these flowers based on height. We have tall sunflowers and dwarf sunflowers.
As the name suggests, tall sunflowers come in taller varieties. Most tall sunflowers are yellow and can reach heights of 16 feet tall. In certain circumstances, you’ll find even taller flowers. These plants typically have an abundance of seeds. So, when purchasing sunflower seeds to grow, keep in mind the type you’re looking for.
Dwarf sunflowers are ideal for small garden spaces. They usually grow to about 3 feet tall. So, if you have a container garden or planter, you can watch your sunflower grow from the sunflower seed.
Sunflower plants play a key role in the identity of people from Ukraine and the United States state of Kansas. We can classify Ukraine as the sunflower country and Kansas as the sunflower state. In this light, we could say this flower connects these two areas.
In Ukraine, you’ll see the people fabricating sunflowers into wreaths and turning them into embroidery. Also, the people will sometimes paint sunflowers on their walls.
When the Orthodox Catholic Church prohibited butter and lard, Ukrainians turned to sunflower production and sunflower oil as an alternative. In recent times, the country has been one of the largest producers of sunflower oil, accounting for almost 80% of sunflower oil shipments. Sunflowers also serve as a symbol of hope and unity as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stretches.
As the state flower of Kansas, Kansas also bears the name of the sunflower state. The state houses a great variety of sunflower plants, so it’s no surprise it’s the official state flower. You’ll even find evidence of the state’s sunflower pride on its flag.
Imagine standing next to a flower that’s 30 feet and 1 inch tall. That’s the height of the tallest sunflower in the world which makes for a pretty amazing sunflower fact. The sunflower was planted by Hans-Peter Schiffer, a gardener in Nordrhein Westfalen, Germany. He held the record continuously three previous times, before 2015, in 2009, 2012, and 2013.
This extraordinary flower required scaffolding during measurement to determine its height. Schiffer mentioned that he was worried his flower wouldn’t make the cut after threats from a thunderstorm. However, his sunflower pulled through, in full bloom, and broke the Guinness World Record.
As part of a personal biology experiment, astronaut Don Petti traveled in 2012 to the International Space Station with sunflower seeds2. His decision to take a selection of sunflower seeds along was mainly to give him a homely feeling while in space.
Pettit recorded what he learned from space while watching the seeds develop. His unofficial sunflower seed selection gave the illusion of potted home plants. As an unofficial space gardener, he also provided unique names for the plants.
Vincent Van Gogh is a popular name that comes up when exploring famous artists and many people know him for his selection of the sunflower as a muse in numerous famous paintings. Even if you’re not an avid art student or collector, there’s a high chance you’ve seen one or more of his sunflower paintings.
Van Gogh’s pieces contributed to people recognizing and appreciating the sunflower’s beauty deeper. Apart from Van Gogh, artists like Alfred Gockel and Diego Riviera also explored the sunflower in their work.
Sunflowers are not only beautiful to gaze at, and they represent something deeper for many people. These flowers show up in many traditions and cultures and have different meanings and symbols depending on the culture.
Sunflowers’ genus name, Helianthus, comes from the Greek words for sun and flower. The word for sun is Helios, and the word for flower is Anthos. In this mythology, the sunflower plays a role in the story of Clytie and Apollo. In this story, the sunflower represents devotion and loyalty.
If there’s any befitting name for sunflowers, it’s definitely what the French call it. Before they become mature, the young ones will seek out the sun throughout the day. This helps them get the most light.
We’ve already established that sunflower buds or young sunflowers track the sun throughout the day from east to west. However, as they hit maturity, this behavior hits a halt. Their internal clocks begin to slow down as they grow until heliotropism completely ends.
You may think this halt will harm the flowers. However, the mature ones become somewhat wise enough to get the best out of the sunlight. As a result, they no longer have to trail the sunshine all day long. Mature flower heads face east for various reasons. The first is that mature flower heads get the most warmth when facing the east. Then, this warmth enables the flower to attract more pollinators.
Sunflowers have independent qualities when it comes to seed production. Usually, in terms of seed production or reproduction, plants rely on insects or the wind. This will typically look like an insect transporting pollen to the plant's stigma. In most cases, this is also how pollination occurs in the sunflower plant.
However, during occasions where the stigma receives no pollen, a sunflower will self-pollinate. The stigma will twist around, wrapping itself around its pollen. This leaves no room for hybridization as the seeds generated from this process produce flowers that resemble the original sunflower.
One of the sunflower’s most remarkable qualities is its ability to absorb toxic materials from the environment. These plants can reduce pollution effects after disasters. Following nuclear disasters like Chornobyl, scientists planted sunflowers in millions to absorb radiation. Experts also planted millions after the devastating tsunami destroyed reactors in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant3.
We derive sunflower oil from the seeds of the sunflower. Globally, people adore sunflower oil for its many purposes, including as an alternative to animal fats and other oils due to its low cholesterol properties. People use it as cooking oil and sunflower seed oil as medicine, while you’ll find manufacturers using it in cosmetic formulations.
Using flower heads as scrubbing pads might be the last thing on your mind. However, the sunflower head is sturdy enough to handle tough stains that your typical cleaning tool isn’t helping with. Once you check to ensure that the sunflower heads contain no seeds, you can convert them into a type of natural scrubber after drying.
Sunflowers are some of the most interesting-looking plants. They garner great admiration from people all over the world. Apart from their vibrant and aesthetic appeal, these flowers hold great meanings. Also, they serve our world by contributing to nature’s processes and supplying us with their oil and seeds.
Atamian, H. S., Creux, N. M., Brown, E. A., Garner, A. G., Blackman, B. K., & Harmer, S. L. (2016). Circadian regulation of sunflower heliotropism, floral orientation, and pollinator visits. Science, 353(6299), 587-590.
Shockman, E. & Minoff, A. (2015, October 9). Here's what happens when you grow sunflowers in outer space. The World
Slodkowski, A. & Nakao, Y. (2011, August 19). Sunflowers melt Fukushima's nuclear "snow". Reuters
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.