Sunflower’s Wonders

Who doesn’t love sunflower? It looks like sun, tastes like summer, and it has a pretty incredible history, too.


One of my favourite pastimes during summer school holidays (which in Poland start at the end of June, and last until the end of August) was cheerful doing-nothing (nicnierobienie). The seemingly monotonous, hot and heavy days were in fact filled with sweet little things, things that are only possible during these two months, things that – due to their seasonality  – have forever been engrained in my memory with a tag ‘summer’. Memories of carefree, lazy, heavy with meadow buzz afternoons, memories of countless books read on the blanket underneath a cherry tree, of strawberry and kefir smoothies, and of mushroom ‘necklaces’ drying out in the sun – the sounds, smells and flavours forever associated with summer. My own Proustian madeleine moments.

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Wild strawberries in June. First forest mushrooms in July. Gooseberries. Currants. Bilberries. The smell of hay, fragrant and crisp, drying on the meadows. The smell of the July rains. First cucumbers. Delicately sweet young carrots. The abundance of dill. My auntie’s leczo (which I used to avoid as a child, silly me). Making jams and syrups with my mum and sister, in a tiny, steamy kitchen. Blackberries, picked straight from the bushes. Rhubarb stalks dipped in sugar, eaten with an involuntary grimace on the face (it’s sour!). Picking, hulling and eating vast amounts of broad beans. My mum’s Sunday dinners, with boiled cauliflower and yellow beans from her garden, all generously covered in butter and breadcrumbs (of course). The first mizeria, sliced cucumber and sour cream salad. And sunflower.

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Blackberries. Zielona, Poland.

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Vegetables at the local market. Niepołomice, Poland.

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Boletus edulis, or cep mushroom. Zielona, Poland.

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Dill flower. Zielona, Poland.

You see, when I was a kid, summer was all about being outdoors. That is, when my mum decided she doesn’t need us with pickling or other Very Important Jobs to be done at home, me and my sister were out and about, getting rather creative with our choice of games and pastimes. Our imagination was untamed: there was an idea of a treehouse building (abandoned, due to the lack of material and interest from The Adults), a bike trip to the forest in the neighbouring village, in search of mushrooms (all would be good, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was 6, and my cousin and companion, Aga, was 7; the anticipated warm welcome upon our return from a 2-hour voyage turned out to be a rather unpleasant encounter with two Angry Mums, worried sick for our safety), there were countless hide-and-seek games, businesses started (selling pebbles and little stones on my cousin Aga’s front terrace, for instance). But there were also days when it was way too hot and heavy for all that. And that’s when we always resorted to the satisfying job of eating sunflower kernels straight from the flower head.

The way to describe it: it’s an experience. One has to spend a legitimate amount of time digging their kernels out of their little hulls (which is usually done by one’s teeth), in order to get a desired, faint taste of the seed. And as there is an ongoing debate about ketchup: all over or on the side?, there are two schools when it comes to sunflower kernels eating, too.

First, is to eat the seeds one by one: you chew on one seed while de-hulling the next. The method is somehow soothing, in a way meditation is, as one has to immerse oneself in the act of eating, requiring in this particular case digging out each teeny tiny kernel out of its teeny tiny hull. It can go on for hours.

Second, is to bulk-eat. One spends a fair amount of time getting as many kernels out of their shells as possible, puts all de-hulled, ready to eat seeds on a neat pile aside, and continues with the job until he’s satisfied with the ready-to-eat pile size. The trick is, you have to use all the superpowers you have to stop yourself from eating-as-you-hull, as this will noticeably slow down your pile-building process.

The crime, and I repeat it again, crime, is to eat one’s de-hulled, saved for later kernels without asking. Even asking can be considered a bit much by some, given all the love that goes into the job of getting the kernels out of their shells. And all the willpower needed to stop yourself from eating them until that pile (you’re about to shamelessly devour now) is big enough. Same goes for pumpkin seeds, by the way.

An experience of eating sunflower kernels straight from the flower head is not limited to hard physical labour, though. The indisputable highlight is the intensive, hay-like smell of the sunflower head, stalk and the leaves surrounding it. The herby, earthy smell sticks to your fingers for hours. A fragrant reminder of a lazy time spent on summer-style feasting.

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Imagine the joy, then, when I discovered that local Polish shop sells sunflower heads. I munched away, with a grin on my face, enjoying with a childlike wonder every single second of my sunflower feast. I left the (massive, I admit) flower head on the pile of books once, what Żubrek remarked with (he thought) funny comment: “not eating your flower anymore?”. He found the whole sunflower kernel eating business quite amusing.

If you are not up for the sunflower experience, sunflower kernels are widely available to buy in a form that doesn’t require any work from you: just buy a bag and you’re good to snack away. Of course, the shop-bought kernels are not as soft and oily as the fresh ones are, but they are still pretty decent, a great ingredient to incorporate into your daily cooking. Sunflower seeds are a great source of dietary fiber (important for sustaining healthy gut), protein, vitamins B and E. And they’re tasty, too. The kernels have a delicate nutty flavour and are a great addition to salads, pastas, granola or veggie bread spreads. You can also ground them and use instead of flour to dust fish or meat. Quite a versatile little seed, don’t you agree?

Sunflower earned their name due to the process called heliotropism (helios is the personification of the sun in Greek mythology). Heliotropic flowers track the sun’s motion across the sky from east to west. It is a common misconception, though, that sunflower, too is a heliotropic flower. The fact that the flowers align facing the same direction does result from heliotropism, but in an earlier development stage of the plant (bud stage), before the flower heads appear. The flower of the sunflower preserves the final orientation of the bud, thus mature flowers face east.  One other remarkable ability of the sunflower is its use in extracting toxic ingredients from soil, they were planted, for instance, in Fukushima, to help detoxicate the soil after the nuclear disaster in 2011. If that wasn’t enough, it turns out sunflower has an interesting story, too.

Wild sunflower is native to North America, where it was a common crop among American Indian tribes, cultivated as long ago as 3000 BC. The plant was used in many ways by the local tribes, from grounding it into flour for bread, to adding the seed to other vegetables. It was also used as a dye for textiles and other decorations. Even a stalk, which is light and fairly resistant, was used as a building material.

Sunflower's Travels

The commercialisation of the plant, however, took place somewhere else. The Spanish took the seeds with them over to Europe, sometime after 1500, where it quickly became popular, adorning gardens with its exotic, bold beauty, the Indian Sun (captured, among others, by Van Gogh, in his famous painting Sunflowers). Other than decorative uses of the plant were soon developed, the most lucrative of all: pressing sunflower oil, the English patent for which was granted in 1716. Not surprisingly, sunflower quickly became a very popular cultivated plant, and by the 1830s the sunflower oil production was done on a commercial scale in Europe.

It became a great hit in Russia due to religion, at least according to Jerry Miller, the former sunflower breeder at the Sunflower Research Unit in Fargo, North Dakota. The Orthodox Church forbids eating certain food items during Lent, the list includes (among others) butter, lard, and vegetable oils, but not sunflower oil. As other sources of fat were prohibited, sunflower oil was a new go-to for Russian Christians, who were looking for the ways to work around the strict dietary rules during 40-day-long Great Lent. There is no mention of sunflower oil in the Fasting Rule of the Orthodox Church true, but it clearly states that ‘oils’ are prohibited.  I suppose, then, it’s down to one’s conscience how to categorise sunflower oil: is it a ‘vegetable oil’ or not?

Nonetheless, the sunflower oil production blossomed in 19th century Russia. By the 20th century the oil production was full blown, and new sunflower varieties were developed, with up to 50% more oil in their seeds. By 1880, seed companies were advertising the ‘Mammoth Russian‘ sunflower seed in catalogues, interestingly, still advertised under this name in the US in 1970, nearly 100 years later (and it still is now!).

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Image source: Horticultural History blog.

In the U.S., however, sunflower oil didn’t make it quite as big straight away. The corn and soybean oils were cheaper to produce, which made the job of making it in America difficult for the plant. A likely source of the seed in North America may have been Russian immigrants, who brought the dear seed over with them (in 1930s, the basic plant breeding material in Canada came from the Russian immigrants’ gardens). In 1926, the Missouri Sunflower Growers’ Association participated in what is likely the first processing of sunflower seed into oil, before that commercial uses of the sunflower crop in the US included silage feed for poultry.

But in the 1900s, according to Jerry Miller, the sunflower oil received a boost needed to kick off the production: potato crisps makers. Due to the popularity of so-called Mediterranean diet, promoting olive oil as the healthier alternative to high in trans-fats oils used by the food industry, the entrepreneurs were in a pickle: olive oil was expensive, and not ideal for deep frying, either.  Luckily for the American potato crisps producers (namely, Frito-Lay) the Russians had an answer to this crisis. They developed a mutant sunflower, which gives a transfat-free oil, and which is suitable for frying potato crisps. Voila! Problem solved.

Gerald Seiler, together with Laura Marek, scientists who work at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Northern Crop Science Laboratory, in Fargo, North Dakota, have spent over a decade collecting different varieties of wild sunflower in America.  They are concerned that climate change could threaten wild species before researchers have a chance to collect and study them. Seiler and Marek seem determined though – during their recent trip through Utah and Arizona, they gathered four different species in 20 distinct locations spread out over 2,300 miles. Pretty impressive, huh?

Sunflower's Travels

Breeders worldwide are constantly working on developing new seed from purely ornamental ones, to heirloom ones. And there is even an award awaiting for individuals working in the sunflower industry, who have remarkable achievements in the field. This Nobel Prize in the sunflower industry is called The Pustovoit Award, named after a famous Russian sunflower breeder Vasilii Stepanovich Pustovoit. Pustovoit was one of the first to breed sunflowers with high oil content. He developed highly effective systems for the improved raising of sunflower seeds, resulting in 20 sunflower varieties with a high oil content (up to 57 percent in dry seeds).

You can try growing your own, especially that sunflowers are easy to grow, as long as the soil is not too wet. Most are heat- and drought-tolerant.  The flowers come in a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes, and are a great addition to any summer garden, with their cheerful, sunlike appearance. They make excellent cut flowers and many are attractive to bees and birds. Planning a bee-friendly garden is a win-win situation, really. You get pretty, attention-grabbing flowers in your garden, homegrown sunflower seeds to snack on (depending on the variety you grow, of course), and you help to save the bees, providing them with irresistible pollen and nectar to feed on. And Britain’s bees are in trouble. 35 UK bees species are under threat of extinction, and all species face serious threats. No matter the size of your garden, planting bee-friendly flowers can help boost local bee populations. Grateful bees will in return dutifully pollinate your crops (and that includes fruits and vegetables).

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Sunflowers in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

It’s August now, the month when sunflowers are still in full bloom (depending on latitude, that is). Go explore! Get lost in sunflower maze, learn how to grow sunflowers, spend some time out in nature. Below, some of the sunflower festivals worldwide.

MANITOBA SUNFLOWER FESTIVAL
WHEN: 27 – 29th July
WHERE: Altona Centennial Park, 10th Ave NW, Altona, MB
CANADA

HOKURYU-CHO HIMAWARI-NO-SATO
WHEN: July – August
WHERE: 143-2 Itaya, Hokuryu-cho, Uryu-gun, Hokkaido
JAPAN

KIYOSE SUNFLOWER FESTIVAL
WHEN: 18TH – 28th August
WHERE: 〒Farmland of 204-0011 3, Shimokiyoto, Kiyose-shi, Tokyo district
JAPAN

BUA TONG FESTIVAL
WHEN: November – December
WHERE: Doi Mae U-Kor, Mae Hong Son Province
THAILAND

SUN&GREEN SUNFLOWER FARM
WHEN: May – October
WHERE: Guanyin, Taoyuan
TAIWAN

CINCINNATI SUNFLOWER FESTIVAL
WHEN: 6th & 7th October
WHERE: GORMAN HERITAGE FARM, 10052 Reading Road, Evendale, OH 45241,
UNITED STATES

MAPLE LAWN FARMS SUNFLOWER FESTIVAL
WHEN: 10th – 19th August
WHERE: Maple Lawn Farms, 2885 New Park Road, New Park, PA 17352
UNITED STATES

SUNFLOWERFEST
when: 27 July – 29 July 2018
where: Tubby’s Farm, Hillsborough, Co.Down, BT266NB,
UNITED KINGDOM

If you prefer solitary wanders, on a bike for example, there are quite a few sunflower fields in Europe, known for their picturesque beauty. Sunflower fields in Ukraine, Tuscany, Provence and so-called Sunflower Valley in Spain are said to be one of the most beautiful. Make sure, though, not to damage the flowers while in a midst of a selfie fury. Someone worked hard to plant these flowers.

Wishing you all many adventurous summer wanders! If you know of any other sunflower festivals, let me know in the comment!

Sunflower's Travels

Sunflower's Travels

Sunflower's Travels

Have a nice weekend, everyone,
aho

  1. […] I visited my friends Ewa&Marcin, who introduced me and Żubrek to the dried tomato and sunflower seed spread. Greedily and shamefully, we ended up eating the entire jar of their spread (to much of […]

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  3. […] cups red lentils 1/2 cup sunflower seeds 1/2 cup oats 1 onion 2 garlic cloves 2 carrots 1 celeriac 2 bay leaves 2-3 green onions 1 red […]

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  4. […] be much happier if it was wholegrain, but what to do), celery, garlic, tomatoes, some rocket and sunflower seeds. I looked at all this stuff and thought to myself: pasta it is! Without further ado I proceeded to […]

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  5. […] cooked buckwheat groats 1 soft boiled egg fresh thyme handful of rocket 1tbsp pumpkin seeds 1tbsp sunflower seeds 1 avocado 1/3 cup cooked green peas 4-5 sun-dried tomatoes freshly ground pepper salt shichimi […]

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  6. What a great read! Thanks for sharing your story about sunflower seeds and summertime in Poland. I’ve never seen a sunflower with sunflower seeds before your photos here. How fascinating how they grow! I think your post made me love sunflowers even more than before 🌻🌻🌻

    Reply

  7. Bardzo ciekawie sie czytało

    Reply

    1. Dzieki ^^ Milej niedzieli Klaudiku 🌼

      Reply

  8. There’s one in Taiwan!!! Definitely gonna go visit when we are there! 🤩

    Reply

  9. What a lovely post! I’ve never seen the seeds in a sunflower before.

    Reply

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