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Knot Garden - Herbs - The Sunflower  Helianthus Annuus

The Knot Garden

Insights into Herbs and their uses

The Sunflower – Helianthus Annuus

With the coming of the autumn equinox, we slip reluctantly into the long night of the year, the hours of darkness now outstretching the light.

Helianthus Annuus

How comforting it is, then, to gaze up at the shaggy discs of sunflowers grinning over our plots or peeping, curious, over walls and fences. They don’t just epitomise the cottage garden, they also add vital, solar energy to the solemn turn of the year.

The Knot Garden Insights into Herbs and their uses The Sunflower family – Helianthus Annuus

In legend, the sunflower - Helianthus annuus - is dedicated to Helios/ Hyperion/ Apollo – the various shining faces of the Greek god of the sun. I’d choose to re-dedicate it though to Clytie, the sad little water nymph who pined to death through her unrequited love for the playboy of the pantheon.

Apollo himself was enamoured (at the time anyway... between his rovings with Cassandra, Daphne, Hyacinth, Coronis, Sybil etc etc...) of Calliope, muse of epic poetry...

Who knows, if Calliope had dedicated her attention to briefer verse forms (the sonnet or haiku perhaps?) she might have had more time for reflection and seen through Apollo’s dazzling but capricious charm... But she didn’t, and their coupling left sad, unwanted Clytie with her feet on the cold damp earth, craning her neck to follow the object of her desires in his progress across the heavens. And thus she stood entranced, taking no liquid or sustenance until she died ‘of melancholy’ and her body was transformed into a sunflower...

Botanically, the plant is closely related to the globe artichoke and its unopened buds can either be steamed in a similar way, or consumed raw in salads. I’ve never tried this though, for to sacrifice something so full of potential beauty for the sake of salad feels rather wasteful!

Its sweet seeds, of course, are much used in cooking and baking and are a massively important source of energy -packed oil – in fact they’re so rich they that they need to be mixed with less calorific ingredients for many animal feeds.

Wild birds adore them and I leave as many seed-heads as I can in the garden for the winter, supplementing them with bought supplies. The sunflower-seed

The Knot Garden Insights into Herbs and their uses The Sunflower family – Helianthus Annuus

containers are always the first feeders to be emptied by the birds here – and since I’ve started to offer them regularly, I’ve had increasing numbers of greenfinches and siskins visiting my backyard. BUT, be warned, the husks make an amazing mess – somewhat reminiscent of rat droppings - and any surrounding pots or ground will also be blessed with a small forest of sunflower plants come spring. I now buy ready-shelled sunflower hearts...

The sprouting seedlings can be harvested and eaten like beansprouts, but I’ve never really felt tempted, given the warm rain of guano I associate with bird-feeding areas. The flower heads are also a magnet for butterflies and bees, supplying them with copious nectar and also offering a good source of wax for buzzing honey-makers.

Medicinally, a handful of sunflower seeds - or about a dozen drops of oil taken thrice daily - will help many difficulties associated with breathing; bronchitis, pulmonary complaints, whooping cough and ordinary coughs and colds. Sadly I suspect that as with most things, ‘less is more’ and that a six-pack of doughnuts deep fried in sunflower oil will never combat a forty a day habit...

HThe Knot Garden Insights into Herbs and their uses The Sunflower family – Helianthus Annuus

The seeds are not rich in oil alone, they also contain quantities of vitamins B1, B2, niacin, iron, potassium, phosphorous and some protein (and taste good!)

Mrs M. Grieve, in her ‘modern’ herbal of 1931, advocates boiling them in water and then adding Dutch gin and sugar. I can well understand why this might make one feel better, but why DUTCH gin, I’ve no idea, even if the plant has long associations with Holland... It was welcomed there for its ability to drain swampy ground with its prodigious thirst and was often also grown close to houses for the same reason... Rising damp? Plant Helianthus!

Russians used sunflower leaves and milk in a poultice wrapped around the entire body to treat malaria, whilst the Chinese use them as a combustible moxa in acupuncture. They’ve also been have been used to treat dysentery and inflammation of the kidneys and are generally believed to improve damp, swampy air where they are grown...

The unusual lightness and strength of sunflower fibre also makes it an important crop and it is incorporated in the manufacture of materials as diverse as paper, silk and rope. The petals yield a yellow dye and the leaves are smoked as a herbal tobacco.

The Knot Garden Insights into Herbs and their uses The Sunflower family – Helianthus Annuus

If you’re not leaving them in the garden for the birds, the tough, dried stems burn brightly to produce embers particularly rich in potash; kindle them straight on the earth and rake the ash into the surrounding soil afterwards, or gather it for sprinkling around soft fruit bushes and strawberry plants.

Finally the sunflower is recorded as being used in a number of folk spells – in Inca ritual, against smallpox, to grant wishes, to protect against lightning, to identify thieves, and to detect lies (Trisha beware!) to name but a few... The gentlest is a wish-granting charm which says that a seed plucked with the left hand whilst wishing and then planted will bring your desires to fruition as it grows.

Of course that’s not to mention the enchantment the sunflower has cast over generations of young gardeners, for how many green-fingered addicts of today were originally spell-bound in the process of nurturing these amazing giants? I know one of my earliest gardening memories is of carrying little sand-pail bucketfuls of water to these shaggy friends, drenching their toes as their hollow stems sucked nourishment straw-like from the soil.

And if I’d been better educated at the time I’d have lifted a pail to Clytie too...

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