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