Story Behind the Science
Sunflowers get their name from their resemblance to the sun. They are appreciated for their bright color and dramatic appearance, as well as for their simplicity. Sunflowers are relatively simple to grow and often plant themselves, typically near bird feeders that use sunflower seeds in their feed. They can survive in most any environment, as long as they are not waterlogged.
These flowers date back to 3000 B.C., and they grew most abundantly in the Great Plains. Native Americans cultivated sunflowers throughout the remainder of North America for their fiber, seeds and oil, as well as for medicinal purposes. Although they’re native to North America, sunflowers are exported worldwide for commercial use and agricultural production. Now, sunflowers are valued for their edible oil, the industrial applications of oil, sunflower meal and seeds, which are commonly mixed with bird feed or eaten by humans as a snack.
One of the greatest threats to sunflowers and all other flowers is colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD affects honeybees, especially those used commercially, and has been an issue among beekeepers and in agricultural production since 2006. This epidemic may have been around as early as 2002, though it didn’t reach its peak of devastation till years later. In 2006, beekeepers reported between 30 and 90 percent of their bees had left their hives and died.
CCD is not completely understood, though it has been noted that billions of bees have been affected. They leave their hives to collect nectar and spread pollen, but they don’t return to their homes. The reason for this is unknown, although there are many theories. Potential causes include Israeli acute paralysis virus, neonicotinoid pesticides, varroa mites, stress, lack of genetic diversity and genetically modified crops.
To prevent the continuation and expansion of CCD, some areas have banned the use of certain pesticides. Beekeepers try their best to reduce the stress placed on their honeybees by reducing travel and by finding better foraging grounds during the pollination off-season. Another potential strategy for decreasing the risk of CCD spreading is finding new quality pollinators, such as other bee species, to ease the strain on commercial honeybees.
Did You Know?
- Sunflowers’ botanical name, Helianthus, is derived from the Greek words “helios” and “anthos,” meaning “sun” and “flower” respectively.Learn More »
- A sunflower is actually made up of a cluster of hundreds of smaller flowers.Learn More »
- The seeds, leaves and stems of sunflowers release substances that prevent further development of some plants living around them.Learn More »
- The state of Kansas’ nickname is the Sunflower State.Learn More »
- Sunflowers “follow” the sun during the bud stage, as they track the movement of the sun along the horizon.Learn More »
- May 1 is celebrated as International Sunflower Guerilla Gardening Day. On this day, people around the world scatter sunflower seeds throughout town wherever they’d like.Learn More »
- Asteraceae is the largest family of flowering plants.Learn More »
|Compare & Contrast||Sunflowers||Asteraceae (The Aster, Daisy or Sunflower Family)|
|How many species?||More than 50||More than 23,600|
|Where do they occur?||Sunflowers are native to North America, though they have been commercialized and cultivated in Europe, Russia and elsewhere throughout the world.||Worldwide except Antarctica|
|What kind of habitat do they live in?||Sunflowers thrive in hot and dry conditions, especially in full sunlight.||Asteraceae plants can be found in most habitats but are most diverse in the subtropical and tropical areas of North, Central and South America, southern Africa, the Mediterranean and Asia.|
|Do they have predators?||Birds, squirrels, deer, insect pests (like some moths, weevils, caterpillars and worms)||A variety of birds, bats, rodents, other mammals, insects and more|
P. Allen Smith, “Growing Sunflowers from Seeds”
Conservation Organizations for Sunflowers & Garden Flowers
- National Sunflower Association
- The Great Sunflower Project
- North American Native Plant Society
- The International Compositae Alliance
- National Gardening Association
- American Community Gardening Association
- Honey Bees & Colony Collapse Disorder, U.S. Department of Agriculture -- Agricultural Research Services
- Pollinator Protection, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency