Sunflowers. They’re spectacular, summery, and yellower than yellow. They’ve inspired artists, musicians and even chefs. Here’s everything you need to know about sunflowers…
‘Sunflower, a Good Mornin’! You sure do make it like a sunny day!’ sang Glen Campbell in his 1977 hit song Sunflower.
And how right he was.
The sunflower is one of the great smiley, summery joys that nature has granted us. All hail the helianthus!
A brief history of sunflowers
Helianthus is the name of the plant’s genus. It translates perfectly literally from the Greek (helios means ‘sun’ and Anthos means ‘flower’) and is so called either because the glorious yellow heads resemble the sun (true), or because of the widespread belief that the blooming heads turn to follow the sun as it tracks across the sky (false, sadly – they face east).
There are in fact over 70 species of helianthus in the family Asteraceae, all native to America. The common sunflower (helianthus annus) was first brought to Europe in the 16th century, and the seeds and oil have been popular cooking ingredients ever since.
More importantly, of course, sunflowers are beautiful and for hundreds of years have generally made our greyish, rainy island a sunnier place.
Growing your own sunflowers
Sunflowers are mainly sown from mid-April to the end of May and mostly flower in August. They’re pretty easy to grow – so much so that they’re often a good plant for children to have a go at: the RHS has a simple step-by-step guide here.
The real fun of growing your own sunflowers is of course making them ridiculously tall. The American Giant variety can get up to 4 metres, although the Guinness World Record belongs to one Hans-Peter Schiffer of Germany, who managed to get his to over 9m (30ft). Here he is admiring it from a crane.
The world’s tallest sunflower – Image credit.
Van Gogh’s sunflowers
Sunflowers (1888) – National Gallery, London
Even those with no interest in art know about Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings, largely because in 1987 Japanese businessman Yasuo Goto paid a gobsmacking $40m for one of them, four times the previous world record for an artwork.
What fewer people know is that van Gogh actually painted two series of sunflower pictures. As well as the more famous ‘Arles’ set – seven depictions of sunflowers in vases painted in 1888 – a year earlier he painted four ‘Paris’ sunflowers, showing the flowers lying on a table.
Freddie’s Sunflower Facts!
1. Jerusalem artichokes are sunflowers
The sunflower species Helianthus tuberosus is also called the sunroot or earth apple, but is best known as the Jerusalem artichoke. It’s particularly delicious when pan-fried with leeks and black pudding, as demonstrated by the wonderful Nigel Slater (who just happens to be a Freddie’s Flowers customer.)
2. They’re big in Kansas
The Kansas sea of sunflowers. Image credit
Kansas is known as the ‘Sunflower State’, and one particular farmer near the town of Lawrence called Ted Grinter grows a million of them every year. For a few weeks every year they bloom into a spectacular yellow sea, which thousands of visitors flock to see.
3. They were the Beach Boys’ biggest flop
The LP Sunflower received rave reviews when the Beach Boys released it in 1970 and is ranked as one of the best albums of all time. Alas, it flopped dismally, reaching only number 151 on the US record charts.
4. Sophia Loren went to Russia for one
Also in 1970 was the Italian movie Sunflower (I Girasoli), starring Sophia Loren, which was the first western film to be shot in the USSR. Henry Mancini’s score won an Oscar.
In 2014 these smiling sunflowers appeared in Toyko, after workers decided to cheer visitors up/unnerve them by artfully removing some of the pistils on their surface.