Helianthus annuus: Common sunflower

Family: Asteraceae
Common name: Sunflower, Common sunflower

Vast fields full of beautiful yellow sunflowers, all facing the same direction is a visual delight to the eye and a sure sign of warm summer days. They are beautiful garden plants that can light up your garden inviting butterflies, bees, and small birds.

But these plants also have many culinary as well as industrial uses. Sunflowers belong to the largest family of flowering plants, Asteraceae which includes some of the most beautiful garden favourites.

Sunflower plants can grow to a height of 3-5 meters, with an erect, hairy, soft stem. Leaves are broad, rough, and coarsely-toothed about 20-25 cm long. These plants branch towards the tip developing thick flower heads that are about 15-25 cm in diameter.

The outer bright yellow petals are the ray florets and inner orange-yellow ones are the disk florets that eventually form seeds.

The name Sunflower comes from the heliotropic movement that young flowers exhibit following the sun from morning to dusk, and then circling back in the night to face the east in anticipation of the sun.

Once the flowers become bigger and heavier with seeds, they do not follow the sun, but face the east throughout the day. That is what makes sunflower plant fields so amazing, with all the flowers facing the same direction, giving unique selfie opportunities for admirers.

Though wild varieties of Sunflowers are typically yellow, there are red, orange, white, cream, pink, and brown hybrids as well. There are variants called Giant that grows 3-4.5 meters, Dwarf that grows .8 to 1.2 meters, Double that has fluffy, soft-textured flowers, and Perennials that grow back every year.

These short-lived plants are quite sturdy, tolerant to heat, drought, and pests. But they need regular watering, fertilization, and well-drained soil. Since the stems are soft, overwatering can lead to stem rot.

Sunflower seeds are eaten raw or roasted as snacks, and also added to breakfast cereals or baked items. They are used as bird and cattle food. Sunflower oil extracted from seeds is used in cooking, and for making soaps, paints. Flowers are used to produce commercial yellow dye.

Propagation is from seeds and stem cuttings.