The Sunflower’s Travels

There is nothing more pleasant than sitting on the sofa with a good book and a full bowl of toasted sunflower seeds within arm’s reach. As the hours slip past, the growing mountain of hard husks is the only thing that helps you keep track of time. Or what about in the summer – sitting on the balcony in the full glare of the sun, holding a sunflower and picking out the fresh seeds until they blacken your fingers...?

But the path that the sunflower took before ending up in our homes was really arduous – and as circuitous as the path of a lover who departs only to return.


David Wilmot /Wikimedia Commons/

The first entries in the travel journal

The sunflower’s homeland is America – in fact both Americas – the North and South. Apparently, the sunflower was domesticated earlier than corn, because it was cultivated as long as 5000 years ago. But back then the seeds were not as large as they are today. It was a very important plant for the American Indians, since it was used every day in and around the home. Interestingly, the method of extracting oil from the seeds was known back then and the healthy fat contained in the plant was highly valued. The Indians extracted a purple dye used for ritual body painting from the developing flower tissue and attained an extremely lightweight fibre from the stalks. In fact, it is still considered to be one of the lightest known natural fibres in the world. The flowering season also acted as a natural calendar delineating the hunting season.

The first expedition to Europe

Of course, after the so-called “Discovery of America”, along with other natural resources and plants such as chilli, corn and tomatoes, sunflower seeds also found their way to Europe. It is believed that the plant was brought to Spain in the early 16th century. Although the conquistadors took the best examples they could find on board their ships, they didn’t have the benefit of the Native Americans’ superior knowledge, so the sunflower was initially treated as an ornamental plant, mainly due to the magnificent size of its flowers and its beauty, which was considered to be most exotic. Not until 1716 does the first record appear of a patent for the extraction of sunflower oil – so it took almost 200 years for the Europeans to catch up with the knowledge that the American Indians had long possessed.

How the Tsar outwitted the Orthodox Church

But it wasn’t really until the 18th century that the sunflower gained immense popularity as a crop, and the person whom we should thank for this is none other than Peter the Great himself. During one of his trips to Europe, he arrived in the Netherlands and fell in love with the beautiful fields of yellow flowers he found there.

The sunflower's He took some seeds with him back to Russia, but initially his people did not look too favourably on these novelties. It was the Orthodox Church which “helped” him to popularise them by forbidding the eating of fat during Lent (the fasting regulations were very strict at the time). But there was no mention of sunflower oil, so the Russians embraced the new trend created by Peter with all their heart (and stomachs). By the 1830s, sunflower oil was being produced on a large scale. In fact, the Russian fields were completely flooded with the yellow flowers. The tsarist authorities even invested in laboratory studies on sunflower seeds.

Returning from exile – with the immigrants

And so the time came for the Russian sunflower to return to its homeland – i.e. to America. This happened in the 19th century, thanks to immigrants from Russia. In the advertising catalogues of seed companies dating from 1880, we find the popular and aptly named “Russian Mammoth” occupying first place. This strain was cultivated almost up to the 1970s.

In 1913, Ford’s first automobile production line is launched and the progress of civilization begins to accelerate. The beginning of the 20th century was marked by the flourishing of the kind of military, automotive and manufacturing machinery which constantly needed to be propelled – by oil! The race began between firms looking for cheap energy. Sunflower seeds with their high oil content attracted the attention of the Canadian government, which decided to sponsor research on the plant from which they came. As a result, a new variety of sunflower based on the Russian strain was created – Peredovik by name. A similar situation arose in the United States, where a new sunflower hybrid was created which produced an oil that provided the additional efficiency and properties of paraffin oil while remaining very resistant to diseases.

The second expedition to Europe

At the end of the 70s, the sunflower – in oil form – returned to Europe, where the negative effects of raised cholesterol were increasingly in the limelight. The traditional English, German and Polish cuisines were mainly composed of fried food dripping with fat. slonecznik-2More and more Europeans were therefore beginning to appreciate the value of vegetable fat in daily cooking. And since the United States had already reached superpower status in sunflower cultivation, the U.S. export of sunflower oil to Europe began in earnest and no kitchen today is able to do without it. And that has really benefited our health … 100 grams of sunflower seeds have 560 kcal. That’s a lot for someone on a diet, but the kind of lipids (43g) they contain are much healthier than those of animal origin. 100 grams also contain 24g of protein and 24g of carbohydrates.

It must be remembered that sunflower oil is especially suitable for eating cold, for example in salads. When heated, it relatively quickly starts to smoke and becomes noxious. It should not be heated above 100 degrees, and certainly not used for repeated frying (e.g. of chips). A better choice for such cooking would be rapeseed oil.

Yet another trip

As you all know, sunflowers turn their flowers toward the sun – and follow its course across the sky. But not many know that only the young plants do this. Mature flowers arrange themselves in one direction. And why does this happen? The following legend explains:

A young water nymph fell madly in love with Apollo – god of the sun. Consumed by her love, she used to sit on the ground and stare at the sky as her lover passed by in his sun chariot. Apollo of course paid no attention to her, but the other gods took pity on her and turned her into a sunflower. And they were supposed to be the good gods! Hmm…

One more thing …

Do you know how much Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (ie, “Vase with 15 Sunflowers”) was bought for? 81 million dollars!



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