Sunflowers have new depths of meaning these days, a fact that seems startlingly at odds with the flower’s straightforward boldness. After all, its perpetual cheeriness and habit of quite literally following the sun make this a fitting symbol for reveling in summer’s warmth, simple happiness.
But even the robust sunflower—that with a more subtle hue, perhaps viewed in a softer light, nestled into a deeper arrangement—can whisper love and heartbreak.
An unofficial national symbol, sunflowers have long been part of Ukrainian culture—although they are actually native to the Americas, possibly originating in what is today Mexico and Peru. In 3000 BCE, Native Americans (in present-day western US) bred and cultivated the plants, using them for food, medicine, dye, oil, and building material, and in ceremony.
It was probably the Spanish who brought the plant back home with them in the 1500s as a curiosity, with the flower reaching Ukraine in the mid-1700s. First grown for its bloom, its potential for oil was quickly realized; sunflower oil was produced on a commercial scale in Russia by the early 1800s.
Today, Ukraine cultivates ornamental sunflowers along with four commercial varieties, producing 19% of the world’s sunflowers. Will the probable loss of supply be noticed in the coming year? Since sunflowers yield vegetable oil, fodder, fertilizer, potash, and, of course, edible seeds, yes, I’d suspect so.
Sunflower buds can be eaten in their entirety, with the nontoxic plant “rich in proteins and vitamins of the B complex” and the flowers “promising raw materials for human consumption as ingredients, or for in natura consumption” (de Lima Franzen et al. 2019).
The petals are used in many tea blends, with their bright yellow adding visual interest and the petals themselves lending some creaminess to the tea.
With renewed interest in herbal tisanes, researchers are figuring out how to best cultivate and harvest sunflowers for their blooms rather than their seeds. I discovered that devising methods to pick the flower heads is quite involved, with one study evaluating “frequency distribution of sunflower head diameter, number of petals of each head, length, width, unit mass, and projected area of the petals” of various varieties (Mirzabe et al. 2018)!
That gives me new appreciation for the slivers of blossom in my tea!
More importantly, when we take a moment to reflect, we realize how rich and vibrant every culture is, with so much to offer, with unmeasurable value.
When next we see something that symbolizes the Ukrainian culture—even something so slight as sunny petals brightening our tea—let’s take another moment to ponder what really matters in this world, and then act accordingly.
–de Lima Franzen, F., et al., “Chemical composition of rose, sunflower and calendula flower petals for human food use,” Ciencia y Tecnología Agropecuaria 20(1). 2019.
–Mirzabe, A. H., et al., “Sunflower petals,” Information Processing in Agriculture 5(2):185–98. 2018.
–National Sunflower Association, “History,” accessed 3/9/22.
–Struk, D. H., ed., Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Vol. V:St–Z, University of Toronto Press, 1993.
–Topsfield Fair Education Department, “Using sunflower seeds,” accessed 3/9/22.
Flower arrangement photo courtesy of Kristin Bartlett; Ukrainian eggs painted by Loraine Hodgson; sunflower tile by Motawi Tileworks.