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Common Sunflower
Common Sunflower
(Helianthus annuus LINN.)

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Sunflower

Botanical: Helianthus annuus
Family: N.O. Compositae

---Synonyms---Marigold of Peru. Corona Solis. Sola Indianus. Chrysanthemum Peruvianum.


The common Sunflower is a native of Mexico and Peru, introduced into this country in the sixteenth century and now one of our most familiar garden plants.

It is an annual herb, with a rough, hairy stem, 3 to 12 feet high, broad, coarselytoothed, rough leaves, 3 to 12 inches long, and circular heads of flowers, 3 to 6 inches wide in wild specimens and often a foot or more in cultivation. The flower-heads are composed of many small tubular flowers arranged compactly on a flattish disk: those in the outer row have long strap-shaped corollas, forming the rays of the composite flower.

The genus Helianthus, to which the Sunflower belongs, contains about fifty species, chiefly natives of North America; many are indigenous to the Rocky Mountains, others to tropical America, and a few species are found in Peru and Chile.

They are tall, hardy, annual or perennial herbs, several of which are grown in gardens, being of easy cultivation in moderately good soil, and that useful plant of the kitchen garden, the Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), is also a member of the genus.

The name Helianthus, being derived from helios (the sun) and anthos (a flower), has the same meaning as the English name Sunflower, which it is popularly supposed has been given these flowers from a supposition that they follow the sun by day, always turning towards its direct rays. But since the word 'Sunflower' existed in English literature before the introduction of H. annuus, or at any rate before its general diffusion in English gardens, it is obvious that some other flower must have been intended. The Marigold (Calendulu officinalis) is considered by Dr. Prior to have been the plant described by Ovid as turning to the sun, likewise the solsaece of the Anglo-Saxon, a word equivalent to solsequium (sun-following). The better explanation for the application of the name to a flower is its resemblance to 'the radiant beams of the sun.'

In Peru, this flower was much reverenced by the Aztecs, and in their temples of the Sun, the priestesses were crowned with Sunflowers and carried them in their hands. The early Spanish conquerors found in these temples numerous representations of the Sunflower wrought in pure gold.

In some of the old Herbals we find the Rock-rose (Helianthemum vulgare) also termed Sunflower, its flowers opening only in the sunshine. The so-called 'Pigmy sunflower' is Actinella grandiflora, a pretty perennial 6 to 9 inches high, from the Colorado mountains.

The Sunflower is valuable from an economic, as well as from an ornamental point of view. Every part of the plant may be utilized for some economic purpose. The leaves form a cattle-food and the stems contain a fibre which may be used successfully in making paper. The seed is rich in oil, which is said to approach more nearly to olive oil than any other vegetable oil known and to be largely used as a substitute. In prewar days, Sunflower seed was sometimes grown in this country, especially on sewage farms, as an economical crop for pheasants, as well as poultry. The flowers contain a yellow dye.

One of the many effects of the War in its relation to agriculture was the increase in the use of the Sunflower.

It forms one of the well-known crops in Russia, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Egypt, India, Manchuria and Japan. The average acre will produce about 50 bushels of merchantable seeds, and each bushel yields approximately 1 gallon of oil, for which there is a whole series of important uses.

The oil is produced mainly in Russia, but to an increasing extent also in Roumania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland. In 1913 some 180,000 tons of oil were produced, practically all of which was consumed locally.

The oil pressed from the seeds is of a citron yellow colour and a sweet taste and is considered equal to olive oil or almond oil for table use. The resulting oil-cake when warm pressed, yields a less valuable oil which is used largely for technical purposes, such as soap-making, candle-making and in the art of wool-dressing. As a drying oil for mixing paint, it is equal to linseed oil and is unrivalled as a lubricant.

The residue after the oil is expressed forms an important cattle-food. This oil-cake is relished by sheep, pigs, pigeons, rabbits and poultry.

The seed makes excellent chicken-food and feeding fowls on bruised Sunflower seeds is well known to increase their laying power.

The seeds of the large-seeded varieties are also much liked by Russians and are sold in the street as are chestnuts in this country. Big bowls of Sunflower seeds are to be seen in the restaurants of railway stations, for people to eat. Indian natives are also fond of the seeds.

Roasted in the same manner as coffee, they make an agreeable drink, and the seeds have been used in Portugal and Russia to make a wholesome and nutritious bread.

The pith of the sunflower stalk is the lightest substance known; its specific gravity is 0.028, while that of the Elder is 0.09 and of Cork 0.24. The discovery of the extreme lightness of the pith of the stalk has essentially increased the commercial value of the plant. This light cellular substance is now carefully removed from the stalks and applied to a good many important uses, chiefly in the making of life-saving appliances. The pith has been recommended for moxa, owing to the nitre its contains.

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---Chemical Constituents---The black-seeded variety yield between 50 and 60 per cent of the best grade of oil.

The oil has a specific gravity of from 0.924 to 0.926, solidifies at 5 degrees F., is slightly yellowish, limpid, of a sweetish taste and odourless. It dries slowly and forms one of the best burning oils known, burning longer than any other vegetable oil.

Ludwig and Kromayer obtained a tannin which they called Helianthitanic acid, and gave it the formula Cl4H9O8. On boiling with moderately diluted hydrochloric acid, they obtained a fermentable sugar and a violet colouring matter. E. Diek found only small quantities of Inulin, large quantities of Levulin and a dextro-rotatory sugar.

All parts of the plant contain much carbonate of potash.

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---Extraction---For the extraction of the oil, the seeds are bruised, crushed and ground to meal in a five-roller mill, under chilled iron or steel cylinders. The meal, after being packed in bags, is placed in hydraulic presses, under a pressure of 300 atmospheres or more, and allowed to remain under pressure for about seven minutes. All edible oils are thus obtained and are known in commerce as 'cold-drawn oils' or 'cold pressed oils.' As a preliminary operation, the seeds are freed from dust, sand and other impurities by sifting in an inclined revolving cylinder or sieving machine, covered with woven wire, having meshes varying according to the size and nature of the seeds operated upon. This preliminary purification is of the greatest importance. The seeds are then passed through a hopper over the rollers, which are finely grooved, so that the seed is cut up whilst passing in succession between the first and second rollers in the series, then between the second and the third, and so on to the last, when the grains are sufficiently bruised, crushed and ground. The distance between the rollers can be easily regulated, so that the seed leaving the bottom roller Las the desired fineness. The resulting more or less coarse meal is either expressed in this state, or subjected to a preliminary heating, according to the quality of the product to be manufactured. The oil exuding in the cold dissolves the smallest amount of colouring matter, etc., and hence has suffered least in its quality.

By pressing in the cold, only part of the oil or fat is recovered. A further quantity is obtained by pressing the seed meal at a somewhat elevated temperature, reached by warming the crushed seeds either immediately after they leave the five-roller mill, or after the 'cold-drawn oil' has been taken off. The cold pressed cakes are first disintegrated, generally under an edge-runner. This oil is of a second-grade quality.

Vertical hydraulic presses are at present almost exclusively in use, the AngloAmerican type of press being most employed. It represents an open press, fitted with a number (usually sixteen) of iron press plates, between which the cakes are inserted by hand. A hydraulic ram then forces the table carrying the cakes against a press-head and the exuding oil flows down the sides into a tank below.

According to the care exercised by the manufacturer in the range of temperature to which the seed is heated, various grades of oils are obtained.

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---Cultivation---In growing crops of the Sun flower, various methods of planting andspacing are recommended in different countries. It is best, says a scientific American authority, to plant in rows running north and south, the seeds to be placed 9 inches apart, in rows 30 inches apart.

But in this country, instead of sowing in the open, the most successful growers sow in boxes, or singly in pots under glass, afterwards planting the seedlings out in ground that has been well prepared and enriched with manure. Not that rich soil is essential, practically any kind of soil is suitable so long as it is open to sun and light and splendid returns of seed have been obtained from waste land without any preparation beyond digging the soil.

A well-tilled soil is, however, desirable for successful Sunflower cultivation, preferably with not too much clay in its composition. It should be well ploughed in the autumn and harrowed in the spring. A certain depth is necessary, as the roots will spread from 12 inches to 15 inches in each direction.

In the latter years of the War, the Ministry of Food and the Food Production Department supplied full information as to cultivation and harvesting and undertook to purchase the ripened seed in quantities of 1/2 cwt. and upwards: they were used in the manufacture of margarine and other essential fats used in the making of munitions.

The seed should be sown thinly in boxes in March and when the plants have made three or four leaves, they should be potted off into small pots and grown on if possible in gentle heat. Where no heat is available, a cold frame is the next best thing. Provided that frost can be excluded, a cool, unheated glasshouse may be used.

When established, they should be gradually hardened off for planting out in May, after all danger of late spring frosts is past.

Suitable compost for seeds and potting off is: 1 part leaf mould, 1 part sand, 2 parts loam. If this is not available, any good garden soil will do and it need not be very finely sifted. The seeds germinate readily and grow very rapidly.

Ordinary farmyard manure should be dug into the soil at the rate of 3 cwt. per rod, as they are gross feeders. The Sunflower plants should be planted 3 feet apart between the rows and 2 feet from plant to plant in good soils, and slightly closer on poor soils.

An application of superphosphate before or at the time of planting, at the rate of 1 1/2 OZ. per square yard will encourage early maturing of the seed.

It is of interest to note that the plant assimilates a large quantity of potash and therefore it must not be planted in the same soil the second year.

Seeds should not be sown in the open until late in April, only a sunny border being chosen.

The Food Production Department advised cultivators who intended growing largely for munitions to sow seed early in May, in drills 1 to 1 1/2 inch deep and stated the amount of seed required to be at the rate of 1 OZ. to 8 rods, or 1 1/2 lb. per acre.

In exposed positions, the plants will require support and this is best done by placing a good strong stake each end and one in centre of row, and running a length of wire or thick string from stake to stake and tying the plants to this loosely.

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---Harvesting---No more attention will be needed until the heads commence to ripen, when they should be looked to daily, as the seed soon falls if left too long and also, as the seed ripens, garden pests of the larger sort, birds and squirrels in particular, are always troublesome.

Some growers prevent the loss caused by the attacks of birds to whom the seeds are particularly attractive and by the shaking out of the ripe seeds, by surrounding the heads with bags of rough muslin, but this can only be done when growing on a small scale. With a large plantation, scare away birds by any of the usual methods.

It is, of course, impossible to say exactly when the harvesting should commence. Everything depends upon climatic conditions. If the weather is warm and dry, the best plan is to leave the plants alone, so that the ripening process can be carried out naturally, the heads being cut when about to shed their seeds. In a fine autumn, Sunflower seed will ripen well in the open and the best results are got when the seed can thus beallowed to mature.

When the head shrivels and the seeds are ripe, cut the plants at the ground level, standing them with their heads uppermost, like shocks or sheaves of corn. When the heads are thoroughly dry, cut them off and thresh out the remaining seeds by standing each head on its side and hammering it with a mallet. Store the seeds in bags, in a dry place.

If the weather is dull or wet, unfavourable for ripening of the seed out-of-doors, hasten the ripening by cutting the plants at ground level as soon as the seeds are plump.

Stand them shock-wise, if possible under cover, in a damp-proof outside house, barn or room, and wind being as good a drying agent as the sun, see that the store is well ventilated and leave windows and doors wide open when the weather is propitious. When the heads shrivel, cut them off and complete drying in a very slow oven. Place the heads in single layers on the shelves of the oven in the evening, leaving the door slightly open. Remove them when the fire is made up in the morning and replace them in the evening.

If a kiln or hop oast is available, it may be used for finishing off the drying, but if the seeds are exposed to a high temperature, they will be useless for next year's sowing.

The important things to remember are that the seeds are not ready if they cannot be removed from the heads without difficulty, and they will not keep very long if not dry when stored.

In Russia, where Sunflowers are extensively grown for human food the method adopted by the peasants for removing the seed from the heads is interesting. A wooden disk is made, through which nails are hammered in rows radiating from the centre. The disk is attached to a handle and the seed-head is held in contact with the nails when the disk is turned, with the result that the seed, which is collected in sacks, is raked out very quickly. The disk is so arranged that one man can hold the seed-head in position and at the same time turn the handle to extract the seeds.

The Mammoth or Giant Sunflower, which comes from Russia and is called the Russian Sunflower, is the best kind to grow, these being nearly double the size of the ordinary variety. During the War, the only seed available was the American Giant, which was said, however, to be equal to the Russian.

The tall Mammoth Sunflower, bearing heads of an average width of 15 inches, containing 2,000 seeds, yields about 50 bushels an acre, producing 50 gallons of oil and about 150 lb. of oil-cake, the stems giving 10 per cent of potash.

It has been estimated in Denmark, that the crops of one season in that country would produce 2,000 tons of seed, yielding 350 tons of oil, and about 1,550 tons of oil-cake and oil waste to be used as fodder.

With the exception of Cambridgeshire, the Sunflower grows best in England in the Southern and South-Western counties.

They have been proved to do best on deep, stony soil, and it is an advantage to grow them where bees are kept, as they are much visited by the honey-bee, fertilization of the flowers ensuing.

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---Sunflower-seeds as Poultry and Cattle Food---Sunflower seeds have a high feeding value - the analysis in round figures is 16 per cent albumen and 21 per cent fat.

Being so rich in oil, they are too stimulating to use alone and should only be used in combination with other feeding stuffs. Fed with oats in equal quantities, they make a perfectly balanced ration. Since both of these articles contain a big proportion of indigestible matter, particularly in the husks, grit must on no account be withheld, if the birds are to derive full benefit.

As food for laying poultry, it ought in the opinion of some authorities, not to be used in excess of one-third of the total mixture of corn, owing to its fat-producing properties.

The seeds are palatable to poultry and greedily devoured by them. A very common way to supply the birds with the seeds is to hang up the ripe heads just high enough to compel the chicks to pick them out, for when the heads are thrown into the yard, they are trodden on and wasted.

Sunflower-seed oil-cake is a valuable article for bringing up the feeding value of some of the poultry foods and was specially in demand for this purpose in war-time, when the supply of good cereals ran short. It is more fattening to cattle than Linseed cake, being richer in nitrogenous substances, containing 34 per cent albumen. As well as being an excellent food for poultry, and also for rabbits, it keeps both horses and cattle in good condition. It is said that cows, fed on Sunflower-seed oil-cake, mixed with bran, will have an increased flow of good, rich milk.

It is largely exported by Russia to Denmark, Sweden and elsewhere for stock feeding.

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---Sunflower Plants as Green Food---With Sun flowers there need be little waste. Thegreen leaves, when gathered young, make a good succulent green food for poultry stock of all ages. They can be finely minced up and added - raw - to the mash for young or adult stock, or they can be boiled and put in the soft food. The leaves are much appreciated by rabbits, horses, cows and other stock.

The dried leaves can be rubbed up or reduced to a meal form and be well scalded prior to inclusion in the mash, and the ripe seeds can also be ground into a meal if desired.

---Litter---Even the stems and seedless heads need not be wasted where fowls are kept. Many may prefer to use them as fire-kindlers, but they will, when thoroughly dry, come in useful as litter for the laying-houses. When dry, they can be passed through a chaffcutting machine and be added to the other litter - peat-moss or dried leaves. They need to be made into a scratchable material for hens, but for ducks, the material can be placed deeply in the house as a bedding. Ducks need litter to 'squat' on rather than to scratch in.

---Silage---The value of the Giant Sunflower as a silage crop is discussed in the March, 1918, number of The Journal of Heredity, by F. B. Linfield, the Director of the Montana Agricultural Station. Trials were made of this plant in the higher valleys, where Beans and Maize were not well adapted, owing to the uncertainty of their yield. In three successive years, the yield of the Sunflower varied from 22 to 30 tons of green fodder per acre, being about two and a half times that of Maize, and more than twice as great as that of Lucerne, for the season. It had, moreover, the advantage of so shading the ground as to keep all weeds under. Feeding experiments were made with it, both as a green crop and as silage. Cows were found to eat it as readily as Maize fodder, and control experiments showed that the milk flow was maintained as readily as with the latter crop; nor was there evidence of any taint in the milk. A portion of the Sunflower fodder was put into the silo and fed in the winter, both to cows and fattening steers, with satisfactory results. It matures in the English climate better than Maize, and, consequently, would not be so liable to become sour in the silo and its relatively high oil content would probably render it valuable.

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---As Fuel. As Source of Potash for Manure--- Sunflowers, when the stalks are dry, are as hard as wood and make an excellent fire.

Those who undertake to grow Sunflowers should, however, bear in mind that the ash obtained from the plants after the seed has been harvested is, owing to its richness in potash, a manure of considerable value, so that it is really wasteful to use up the dry stems merely on the domestic fire; it is of more advantage to make them up in heaps on the ground, burn them there and save the ash.

At the time of cutting, strip off the leaves and feed them to rabbits or poultry. When the stems are dry and after the seed crop has been gathered, choose a fine day to burn both stems and empty seed-heads.

Of the ash obtained from burning the Sunflower stems and heads (apart from seeds) 62 per cent consists of potash, and as an acre of Sunflowers produces from 2,500 to 4,000 lb. of top, the total yield of potash is considerable. Allowing 3,000 lb. of top, there would be produced 160 lb. of ashes per acre of crop, which should contain upwards of 50 lb. of potash.

The ash should either be spread at once or stored under cover; if left exposed to rain, the potash will be washed away and the ash rendered of little manurial value. It can be used with advantage for the potato or other root crop in the following year, being spread a little while before the crop is planted, at the rate of from 1/2 to 1 OZ. to the square yard.

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---As Soil Improver---The growing herb is extremely useful for drying damp soils, because of its remarkable ability to absorb quantities of water. Swampy districts in Holland have been made habitable by an extensive culture of the Sunflower, the malarial miasma being absorbed and nullified, whilst abundant oxygen is emitted.

---Textile Use---The Chinese grow this plant extensively, and it is believed that a large portion of its fibre is mixed with their silks.

---A Bee Plant---The Sunflower is a good bee plant, as it furnishes hive bees with large quantities of wax and nectar.

---As Vegetable---The unexpanded buds boiled and served like Artichokes form a pleasant dish.

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---Medicinal Action and Uses---The seeds have diuretic and expectorant properties and have been employed with success in the treatment of bronchial, laryngeal and pulmonary affections, coughs and colds, also in whooping cough.

The following preparation is recommended: Boil 2 OZ. of the seeds in 1 quart of water, down to 12 OZ. and then strain. Add 6 OZ. of good Holland gin and 6 OZ. of sugar. Give in doses of 1 to 2 teaspoonsful, three or four times a day.

The oil possesses similar properties and may be given in doses of 10 to 15 drops or more, two or three times a day.

A tincture of the Howers and leaves has been recommended in combination with balsamics in the treatment of bronchiectasis.

The seeds, if browned in the oven and then made into an infusion are admirable for the relief of whooping cough.

Tincture of Helianthus has been used in Russia. Kazatchkoft says that in the Caucasus the inhabitants employ the Sunflower in malarial fever. The leaves are spread upon a bed covered with a cloth, moistened with warm milk and then the patient is wrapped up in it. Perspiration is produced and this process is repeated every day until the fever has ceased.

A tincture prepared from the seed with rectified spirit of wine is useful for intermittent fevers and ague, instead of quinine. It has been employed thus in Turkey and Persia, where quinine and arsenic have failed, being free from any of the inconveniences which often arise from giving large quantities of the other drugs.

The leaves are utilized in herb tobaccos.

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Purchase from Mountain Rose Herbs
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Purchase from Richters Seeds
Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) Seeds

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Bear in mind "A Modern Herbal" was written with the conventional wisdom of the early 1900's. This should be taken into account as some of the information may now be considered inaccurate, or not in accordance with modern medicine.

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