Helianthus annuus

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Common sunflower, horticultural variety
Sunflower sky backdrop.jpg
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Asterids
Order: Asterales
Family: Asteraceae
Subfamily: Helianthoideae
Tribe: Heliantheae
Genus: Helianthus
Species: H. annuus
Binomial name
Helianthus annuus

Helianthus annuus, the common sunflower, is a large annual forb of the genus Helianthus grown as a crop for its edible oil and edible fruits (sunflower seeds). This sunflower species is also used as bird food, as livestock forage (as a meal or a silage plant), and in some industrial applications. The plant was first domesticated in the Americas. Wild Helianthus annuus is a widely branched annual plant with many flower heads. The domestic sunflower, however, often possesses only a single large inflorescence (flower head) atop an unbranched stem. The name sunflower may derive from the flower's head's shape, which resembles the sun, or from the impression that the blooming plant appears to slowly turn its flower towards the sun as the latter moves across the sky on a daily basis.

Sunflower seeds were brought to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century, where, along with sunflower oil, they became a widespread cooking ingredient.


Head displaying florets in spirals of 34 and 55 around the outside
common sunflower

The plant has an erect rough-hairy stem, reaching typical heights of 3 metres (9.8 ft). The tallest sunflower on record achieved 9.17 metres (30.1 ft).[2] Sunflower leaves are broad, coarsely toothed, rough and mostly alternate. What is often called the "flower" of the sunflower is actually a "flower head" or pseudanthium of numerous small individual five-petaled flowers ("florets"). The outer flowers, which resemble petals, are called ray flowers. Each "petal" consists of a ligule composed of fused petals of an asymmetrical ray flower. They are sexually sterile and may be yellow, red, orange, or other colors. The flowers in the center of the head are called disk flowers. These mature into fruit (sunflower "seeds"). The disk flowers are arranged spirally. Generally, each floret is oriented toward the next by approximately the golden angle, 137.5°, producing a pattern of interconnecting spirals, where the number of left spirals and the number of right spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers. Typically, there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other; however, in a very large sunflower head there could be 89 in one direction and 144 in the other.[3][4][5] This pattern produces the most efficient packing of seeds mathematically possible within the flower head.[6][7][8]

Most cultivars of sunflower are variants of Helianthus annuus, but four other species (all perennials) are also domesticated. This includes H. tuberosus, the Jerusalem Artichoke, which produces edible tubers.

Mathematical model of floret arrangement[edit]

Illustration of Vogel's model for n=1 ... 500

A model for the pattern of florets in the head of a sunflower was proposed by H. Vogel in 1979.[9] This is expressed in polar coordinates

where θ is the angle, r is the radius or distance from the center, and n is the index number of the floret and c is a constant scaling factor. It is a form of Fermat's spiral. The angle 137.5° is related to the golden ratio (55/144 of a circular angle, where 55 and 144 are Fibonacci numbers) and gives a close packing of florets. This model has been used to produce computer graphics representations of sunflowers.[10]


The sunflower, Helianthus annuus, genome is diploid with a base chromosome number of 17 and an estimated genome size of 2871–3189 Mbp.[11][12] Some sources claim its true size is around 3.5 billion base pairs (slightly larger than the human genome).[13]

Cultivation and uses[edit]

A sunflower seed dehulled (left) and with hull (right)
Detail of disk florets
A field of sunflowers at Cardejón, Spain
Worldwide sunflower output

To grow best, sunflowers need full sun. They grow best in fertile, moist, well-drained soil with heavy mulch. In commercial planting, seeds are planted 45 cm (1.48 ft) apart and 2.5 cm (0.98 in) deep. Sunflower "whole seed" (fruit) are sold as a snack food, raw or after roasting in ovens, with or without salt and/or seasonings added. Sunflowers can be processed into a peanut butter alternative, sunflower butter. In Germany, it is mixed with rye flour to make Sonnenblumenkernbrot (literally: sunflower whole seed bread), which is quite popular in German-speaking Europe. It is also sold as food for birds and can be used directly in cooking and salads. American Indians had multiple uses for sunflowers in the past, such as in bread, medical ointments, dyes and body paints.[14]

Sunflower halva is popular in countries in Eastern Europe, including Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine as well as other former U.S.S.R countries. It is made of sunflower seeds instead of sesame.

Sunflower oil, extracted from the seeds, is used for cooking, as a carrier oil and to produce margarine and biodiesel, as it is cheaper than olive oil. A range of sunflower varieties exist with differing fatty acid compositions; some 'high oleic' types contain a higher level of monounsaturated fats in their oil than even olive oil.

The cake remaining after the seeds have been processed for oil is used as a livestock feed. Some recently developed cultivars have drooping heads. These cultivars are less attractive to gardeners growing the flowers as ornamental plants, but appeal to farmers, because they reduce bird damage and losses from some plant diseases. Sunflowers also produce latex, and are the subject of experiments to improve their suitability as an alternative crop for producing nonallergenic rubber.

Traditionally, several Native American groups planted sunflowers on the north edges of their gardens as a "fourth sister" to the better known three sisters combination of corn, beans, and squash.[15] Annual species are often planted for their allelopathic properties.[16]

However, for commercial farmers growing commodity crops, the sunflower, like any other unwanted plant, is often considered a weed. Especially in the Midwestern US, wild (perennial) species are often found in corn and soybean fields and can have a negative impact on yields.

Sunflowers can be used in phytoremediation to extract toxic ingredients from soil, such as lead, arsenic and uranium, and used in rhizofiltration to neutralize radionuclides and other toxic ingredients and harmful bacteria from water. They were used to remove caesium-137 and strontium-90 from a nearby pond after the Chernobyl disaster,[17] and a similar campaign was mounted in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.[18][19]

Heliotropism misconception[edit]

Flowerheads facing East, away from the late afternoon Sun.

A common misconception is that flowering sunflower heads track the Sun across the sky. Although immature flower buds exhibit this behaviour, the mature flowering heads point in a fixed (and typically easterly) direction throughout the day.[20][21] This old misconception was disputed in 1597 by the English botanist John Gerard, who grew sunflowers in his famous herbal garden: "[some] have reported it to turn with the Sun, the which I could never observe, although I have endeavored to find out the truth of it."[22] The uniform alignment of sunflower heads in a field might give some people the false impression that the flowers are tracking the sun.

This alignment results from heliotropism in an earlier development stage, the bud stage, before the appearance of flower heads (anthesis).[23] The buds are heliotropic until the end of the bud stage, and finally face East.[24][25] Their apparent heliotropic motion is a circadian rhythm, synchronized by the sun, which continues if the sun disappears on cloudy days or if plants are moved to constant light.[26] If a sunflower plant in the bud stage is rotated 180°, the bud will be turning away from the sun for a few days, as resynchronization by the sun takes time.[27] The heliotropic motion of the bud is caused by unequal growth speed of the flower stalk and only occurs before the flowers open. The motion of the 'nodding' buds is irreversible, but cumulative. When growth of the flower stalk stops and the flower is mature, the heliotropisms also stops and the flower faces east from that moment onward. This eastward orientation allows rapid warming in the morning and, as a result, an increase in pollinator visits.[26] Sunflowers do not have a pulvinus below their inflorescence. A pulvinus is a flexible segment in the leaf stalks (petiole) of some plant species and functions as a 'joint'. It effectuates leaf motion due to reversible changes in turgor pressure, which occurs without growth. The sensitive plant's closing leaves are a good example of reversible leaf movement via pulvinuli.


Although it was commonly accepted that the sunflower was first domesticated in what is now the southeastern US, roughly 5000 years ago,[28] there is evidence that it was first domesticated in Mexico[29] around 2600 BC. These crops were found in Tabasco, Mexico at the San Andres dig site. The earliest known examples in the United States of a fully domesticated sunflower have been found in Tennessee, and date to around 2300 BC.[30] Many indigenous American peoples used the sunflower as the symbol of their solar deity, including the Aztecs and the Otomi of Mexico and the Incas in South America. In 1510 early Spanish explorers encountered the sunflower in the Americas and carried its seeds back to Europe.[31] Of the four plants known to have been domesticated in what is now the eastern continental United States [32] and to have become important agricultural commodities, the sunflower is currently the most economically important.

During the 18th century, the use of sunflower oil became very popular in Russia, particularly with members of the Russian Orthodox Church, because sunflower oil was one of the few oils that was allowed during Lent, according to some fasting traditions.[33] In the early 19th century it was first commercialized in the village of Alexeyevka in Voronezh Governorate by the merchant named Daniil Bokaryov, who developed a technology suitable for its large-scale extraction, and quickly spread around. The town's coat of arms includes an image of a sunflower ever since.

Among the Zuni people, the fresh or dried root is chewed by the medicine man before sucking venom from a snakebite and applying a poultice to the wound.[34] This compound poultice of the root is applied with much ceremony to rattlesnake bites.[35] Blossoms are also used ceremonially for anthropic worship.[36]


Van Dyck with Sunflower, c. 1633
Vincent Van Gogh - "Lausanne" Sunflowers 1888
  • The sunflower is the state flower of the US state of Kansas, and one of the city flowers of Kitakyūshū, Japan.
  • The sunflower is often used as a symbol of green ideology. The sunflower is also the symbol of the Vegan Society.
  • During the late 19th century, the flower was used as the symbol of the Aesthetic Movement.
  • The flowers were the subject of Van Gogh's Sunflowers series of paintings.
  • The sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine.
  • The sunflower was chosen as the symbol of the Spiritualist Church for many reasons, but mostly because it turns toward the sun as "Spiritualism turns toward the light of truth". As stated earlier in the article, this is in fact, not true. Modern Spiritualists often have art or jewelry with sunflower designs.[37]
  • Sunflowers were also worshipped by the Incas because they viewed it as a symbol for the Sun.[38]
  • The sunflower is the symbol behind the Sunflower Movement, a 2014 mass protest in Taiwan.


Prado Red

The following are cultivars of sunflowers (those marked agm have gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit):-

  • American Giant
  • Arnika
  • Autumn Beauty
  • Aztec Sun
  • Black Oil
  • Chianti Hybrid
  • Claret agm[39]
  • Dwarf Sunspot
  • Evening Sun
  • Florenza
  • Giant Primrose
  • Gullick's Variety agm[40]
  • Incredible
  • Indian Blanket Hybrid
  • Irish Eyes
  • Italian White
  • Kong Hybrid
  • Large Grey Stripe
  • Lemon Queen agm[41]
  • Loddon Gold agm[42]
  • Mammoth Russian
  • Miss Mellish agm[43]
  • Mongolian Giant
  • Orange Sun
  • Pastiche agm[44]
  • Peach Passion
  • Peredovik
  • Prado Red
  • Red Sun
  • Ring of Fire
  • Rostov
  • Skyscraper
  • Solar Eclipse
  • Soraya
  • Strawberry Blonde
  • Sunny Hybrid
  • Sunshine
  • Taiyo
  • Tarahumara
  • Teddy Bear
  • Thousand Suns
  • Titan
  • Valentine agm[45]
  • Velvet Queen
  • Yellow Disk

Other species[edit]

There are many species in the sunflower genus Helianthus, and many species in other genera that may be called sunflowers.

Sunflower hybrids[edit]

In today's market, most of the sunflower seeds provided or grown by farmers are hybrids. Hybrids or hybridized sunflowers are produced by crossbreeding different types and species of sunflower, for example crossbreeding cultivated sunflowers with wild species of sunflowers. By doing so, new genetic recombinations are obtained ultimately leading to the production of new hybrid species. These hybrid species generally have a higher fitness and carry properties or characteristics that farmers look for, such as resistance to pathogens.[46]

Threats and diseases[edit]

One of the major threats that sunflowers face today is Fusarium, a filamentous fungi that is found largely in soil and plants. It is a pathogen that over the years has caused an increasing amount of damage and loss of sunflower crops, some as extensive as 80 percent of damaged crops.[46]

Downy mildew is another disease to which sunflowers are susceptible. Its susceptibility to downy mildew is particular high due to the sunflower's way of growth and development. Sunflower seeds are generally planted only an inch deep in the ground. When such shallow planting is done in moist and soaked earth or soil, it increases the chances of diseases such as downy mildew.

Another major threat to sunflower crops is broomrape, a parasite that attacks the root of the sunflower and causes extensive damage to sunflower crops, as high as 100 percent.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Plant List, Helianthus annuus L.
  2. ^ "Tallest Sunflower". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  3. ^ John A. Adam, Mathematics in Nature. 2003. ISBN 978-0-691-11429-3. Retrieved 2011-01-31 – via Google Books. 
  4. ^ "R. Knott, Interactive demos". Mcs.surrey.ac.uk. 2009-02-12. Retrieved 2011-01-31. 
  5. ^ "R. Knott, Fibonacci in plants". Mcs.surrey.ac.uk. 2010-10-30. Archived from the original on 2009-09-07. Retrieved 2011-01-31. 
  6. ^ Motloch, John L (2000-08-25). Introduction to landscape design - Google Books. ISBN 978-0-471-35291-4. Retrieved 2011-01-31. 
  7. ^ Jean, Roger V (1994). Phyllotaxis. ISBN 978-0-521-40482-2. Retrieved 2011-01-31. 
  8. ^ "Parastichy pair(13:21) of CYCAS REVOLUTA (male) florets_WebCite". Archived from the original on October 25, 2009. 
  9. ^ Vogel, H (1979). "A better way to construct the sunflower head". Mathematical Biosciences. 44 (44): 179–189. doi:10.1016/0025-5564(79)90080-4. 
  10. ^ Prusinkiewicz, Przemyslaw; Lindenmayer, Aristid (1990). The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Springer-Verlag. pp. 101–107. ISBN 978-0-387-97297-8. 
  11. ^ "Helianthus annuus (common sunflower) Genome Project". NCBI. Retrieved 2012-02-20. 
  12. ^ "Helianthus annuus". National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). 
  13. ^ "Sunflower Genome Holds the Promise of Sustainable Agriculture". ScienceDaily. 2010-01-14. 
  14. ^ Pelczar, Rita. (1993) The Prodigal Sunflower. American Horticulturist 72(8).
  15. ^ Kuepper and Dodson (2001) Companion Planting: Basic Concept and Resources
  16. ^ Nikneshan, P., Karimmojeni, P., Moghanibashi, M., Hosseini, N. (2011) Australian Journal of Crop Science. 5(11):1434-40. ISSN 1835-2707. Allelopathic potential of sunflower on weed management in safflower and wheat
  17. ^ Adler, Tina (July 20, 1996). "Botanical cleanup crews: using plants to tackle polluted water and soil". Science News. Archived from the original on July 15, 2011. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  18. ^ AFP (June 24, 2011). "Sunflowers to clean radioactive soil in Japan". Yahoo News. Retrieved 2011-06-25. 
  19. ^ Antoni Slodkowski; Yuriko Nakao (19 August 2011). "Sunflowers melt Fukushima's nuclear "snow"". Reuters. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  20. ^ "Many people are under the misconception that the flower heads of the cultivated sunflower (Helianthus annuus) track the sun... Immature sunflower flower heads do exhibit solar tracking and on sunny days the buds will track the sun across the sky from east to west... However, as the flower bud matures and blossoms, the stem stiffens and the flower head becomes fixed facing the eastward direction." Hangarter, Roger P. "Solar tracking: sunflower plants". Plants-In-Motion website. Indiana University. Retrieved 22 August 2012. 
  21. ^ "Sunflowers in the blooming stage are not heliotropic anymore. The stem has frozen, typically in an eastward orientation.". Archived from the original on 2013-05-23. 
  22. ^ Gerard, John (1597). Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. London: John Norton. pp. 612–614. Retrieved 2012-08-08.  Popular botany book in 17th century England
  23. ^ "Sunflower, Developmental stages (life cycle)". GeoChemBio website. Retrieved 8 August 2012. 
  24. ^ ""Diurnal E-W oscillations of the heads occurred initially but ceased as the flowers opened and anthesis commenced, leaving the heads facing east." Lang, A.R.G.and J. E. Begg (1969). Movements of Helianthus annuus Leaves and Heads. Journal of Applied Ecology 16:299-305". 
  25. ^ "When the plant is in the bud stage, it tends to track the movement of the sun across the horizon. Once the flower opens into the radiance of yellow petals, it faces east." National Sunflower Association
  26. ^ a b Atamian, Hagop S.; Creux, Nicky M.; Brown, Evan A.; Garner, Austin G.; Blackman, Benjamin K.; Harmer, Stacey L. (2016-08-05). "Circadian regulation of sunflower heliotropism, floral orientation, and pollinator visits". Science. 353 (6299): 587–590. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 27493185. doi:10.1126/science.aaf9793. 
  27. ^ Donat-Peter Häder; Michael Lebert (2001). Photomovement. Elsevier. pp. 673–. ISBN 978-0-444-50706-8. Retrieved 15 August 2010. 
  28. ^ Blackman et al. (2011). [1]. PNAS.
  29. ^ Lentz et al. (2008). PNAS.
  30. ^ Rieseberg, Loren H., et al. (2004). Origin of Extant Domesticated Sunflowers in Eastern North America. Nature 430.6996. 201-205.
  31. ^ Putt, E.D. (1997). "Early history of sunflower". In A.A. Schneiter. Sunflower Technology and Production. Agronomy Series. 35. Madison, Wisconsin: American Society of Agronomy. pp. 1–19. 
  32. ^ Smith (2006). [2]. PNAS.
  33. ^ SUNFLOWERS: The Secret History. (2007). Kirkus Reviews 75.23:1236. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 November 2012.
  34. ^ Camazine, Scott and Robert A. Bye (1980) A Study Of The Medical Ethnobotany Of The Zuni Indians of New Mexico. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2:365-388 (p.375)
  35. ^ Stevenson, Matilda Coxe (1915) Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians. SI-BAE Annual Report #30 (p.53-54)
  36. ^ Stevenson, p.93
  37. ^ Awtry-Smith, Marilyn J. The Symbol of Spiritualism: The Sunflower. Reprinted from the New Educational Course on Modern Spiritualism. Appendix IV in Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship, ed. by Todd Jay Leonard. ISBN 0-595-36353-9.
  38. ^ http://livingartsoriginals.com/flower-sunflower.htm
  39. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Helianthus annuus 'Claret' / RHS Gardening". Apps.rhs.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-08. 
  40. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Helianthus 'Gullick's Variety' AGM / RHS Gardening". Apps.rhs.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-08. 
  41. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' AGM / RHS Gardening". Apps.rhs.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-08. 
  42. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Helianthus 'Loddon Gold' AGM / RHS Gardening". Apps.rhs.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-08. 
  43. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Helianthus 'Miss Mellish' AGM / RHS Gardening". Apps.rhs.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-08. 
  44. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Helianthus annuus 'Pastiche' / RHS Gardening". Apps.rhs.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-08. 
  45. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Helianthus annuus 'Valentine' / RHS Gardening". Apps.rhs.org.uk. Retrieved 2013-06-08. 
  46. ^ a b Gontcharov, SV. Antonova, TS. and Saukova, SL. 2006. Sunflower breeding for resistance to fusarium. Helia [accessed September 14, 2014]; 29 (45): 49-54.
  47. ^ Encheva, J. Christov, M and Shindrova, P. Developing Mutant Sunflower Line (Helianthus Annuus L.) By Combined Used Of Classical Method With Induced Mutagenesis and Embryo Culture Method. Bulgarian Journal of Agricultural Science [accessed October 15, 2014]; 14(4):397-404

External links[edit]