Starship Helianthus

I’ll never forget learning about sunflowers. During a few days in 1987 spent with the genius raconteur, plant breeder and seed impresario, Cees Sahin, I traveled through space and time (especially the latter) on the Starship Helianthus. Cees told me the little-known fact that the epicenter of sunflower cultivation was not the US Midwest—no, no!—but the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox churches celebrate Lent very strictly, as well as several other “fasts” throughout the year. Cees said the Bible prohibits all sorts of fats and oils. Thus, particularly if you are a poor peasant in starvation-wracked Russia, you run afoul of God Almighty unless you happen to know about sunflowers. Therefore, the native North American cultivar found itself a second and much larger home in the endless river valleys of Russia and the Ukraine.

Happily too, sunflower oil is very good for you, even compared to olive oil, although it tastes less well. Personally, I can handle butter in a very thin layer on toast, and I have long given up fasting, so I enjoy the sunflower exclusively for its great appeal in the garden.

Its virtues are, like the plant itself, plenty in number and profound in meaning. Take height: a standard tall type reaches 8 to 12 feet in less than two months. By season’s end less than three months later the tallest will reach 14 feet and make a trunk at the base that, cut and dried, resembles a Louisville Slugger—you can seriously hurt someone with it. Indeed, sunflowers are being studied for application in cardboard manufacture, which uses wood. Yet the “giant sunflower” produces a bone-crushing bat in 75-80 days, versus 25-30 years, as does a Loblolly Pine.

There’s more: the reason I call this blog entry “Starship Helianthus” is because tall sunflowers produce large disc-shaped flower heads that, for the life of me, look just like the spaceships of 1960s science fiction movies that filled my head when I was a child. (All I wanted was to hop on the next one and get the hell out of Dodge.)

The “spaceship” blasts out of the seed (as a tiny, 1/8″ embryo) and launches itself straight up until it reaches 8 feet or so, all while it is transforming into a full-blown space vessel. At about 10 feet the mature composite flower begins literally tracking the movement of the earth around the sun. It does this to capture the greatest amount of heat and light possible in order to reproduce itself into about 1,500 carbon copies (so to speak).

Science-fiction, indeed. An expensive, computer-based, motor-driven telescope doesn’t work as well as an ordinary sunflower to track our nearest star.

Plus, the sunflower—not too surprisingly—looks like the sun, except at season’s end when it has finished reproducing its multitudinous progeny. Then, at its tallest height, with all its seed fastened to the deck of the spaceship, it bows its magnificent head and seems to sleep, or even to die. However, it is only a biological phase; the sunflower lives at least another month as it dries and slowly ripens its seed. This is when the birds come to feed, hanging upside down or literally eating on the fly.

I am always deeply moved by the sunflowers in my garden in their short but spectacular final act. I slow myself down and then stop—a natural form of “time travel”. Sometimes I get a ladder to climb and inspect the spaceships, see how they managed through their journey. Sunflowers remind me how much my garden is tuned to the movement of the seasons, especially of the earth around the sun. No plant is more cosmically rewarding.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 3rd, 2011 at 3:15 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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10 Responses to “Starship Helianthus”

  1. laura said:

    Sigh. You said it. I’ve often stilled myself in a field of sunflowers to watch the frenzy around those majestic females heavy with seed and the young ones still fresh of face getting tickled by the bees….tribal.

    • George said:

      Thank you for the dreamy comment. I am glad you enjoy your sunflowers as much as I do—if not more! By the way, do you have actual females? I thought sunflowers were “bisexual”, so to speak. A seed parent line, in the context of an actual or true hybrid, is often referred to in our industry as a “female”. Males are called the “pollen lines”, since they are used only for their male reproductive parts. Do you produce seed as a profession, perhaps?

      Thanks again.


  2. Tricia said:

    Interesting subject matter. Russian Origins. Amazing. We have Maximillian Suns and what we call Black Eyed Susans in Texas covering the fields right about now.

    • George said:

      Dear Tricia,

      Thank you.

      Actually I meant to say that the origin of the domesticated sunflower is the Midwestern United States. Eastern Colorado is where most researchers agree. The genus and species have a more ancient origin, probably Mexico due to the more favorable conditions for evolution—mainly a much longer and wetter season. But, along with wild rice, cranberries and a few dry beans, pumpkins and other winter squashes, the domesticated sunflower is one of North America’s few major agronomic contributions. Most of everything else we grow was introduced to North America by people over hundreds if not thousands of years.

      What an interesting comment! What are the “Maximillian Suns”? And am I correct that you are referring to Rudbeckia hirta when you say Black-Eyed Susan? I am super jealous of your long growing season. I love Texas! Jalapeno cornbread!


  3. Sonna said:

    I grow sunflowers every year and am always toooo busy to really stop and appreciate them. I WILL NEXT YEAR.
    Please continue to leave these wonderful “comments” they are a pleasure!

    • George said:

      Thanks for the compliment. Sunflowers are quite rewarding to grow, especially in the full-sun vegetable garden, where they tend to thrive due to amended soil and plentiful water, which they like. They are tough and can grow in a wide range of conditions, but they love the well-tended and sunny garden. Russia is extraordinarily sunny during the summer, unlike most of Western Europe. Add the fact that the fertile soils of the Ukraine, for instance, are even richer than those in the Midwest (which are legendary), and you can understand their great popularity as a Russian crop.

      Thanks again.


  4. Mary Ellen said:

    What a great article! Sunflowers are my most favorite flowers. They multiply in our compost bed (that’s what we call it) because of the over- head bird feeder and it’s a shame the area is in shade. I’ve read about the sunflowers “following the sun”, but have questioned that because when I plant them, they face the East but don’t follow the sun to the South. You mentioned a height of 10′ — did that pertain to the sentence or to fact with regar to following the sun? I wish someone could answer me. Thanks for the article!

    • George said:

      Dear Mary Ellen,

      Thank you for the compliment.

      A couple of colleagues mentioned this issue of heliotropism to me. I wasn’t aware of its mythical status. To me sunflowers appear to follow the sun. Perhaps in some cultivars the flower head is so big that the peduncle has difficulty making the full sweep. Or, perhaps, in some climates the afternoon sunlight is so diffuse due to rain clouds and water vapor that it cannot be tracked by the flower head. Or—worse for me—sunflowers are heliotropic only in their wild or “land race” form. If so, it is new to me.

      Some plants are “thermotropic”, such as Gazania. In this case, the flowers open and close in roughly day/night cycles, but it is not related to the sun, but rather to the sun’s heat.

      As for your question about “10 ft.”, I was referring to the giant sunflower’s height at the time I saw it moving east to west. It may have started earlier. I believe that is also the height when sexual reproduction kicks in. Could be at shorter height for other “non-giant” varieties and, certainly, for other types, such as dwarf pot and short (4′-5′) garden varieties.

      Thanks for posting.


  5. Alice Doyle said:

    Hello George!
    I so agree, Kees was like no other. As you said,
    “genius raconteur, plant breeder and seed impresario” and so much more. I visited his sunflower trials in 2002–literally thousands of varieties that year.
    As you remember he would often say, “Life will never be the same.” Now those that he mentored (like me) say “Life will never be the same…without him!” A portion of his last trip here was doing an errand for you. We visited Heronswood and you heard his report.
    Thanks for the wonderful sunflower entry and the memory of the plant loving starships with Kees
    Alice Doyle

  6. Simon Crawford said:

    What a wonderful article, so inspirational! The description of the “spaceship” blasting out of the seed is superb. It is remarkable to hear Kees’s voice speaking through this article. What a joy!


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