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The Historical Significance Of Sunflowers

May 21, 2008
The sunflower is often portrayed as a smiling, happy flower in modern times and with all of its benefits, this analogy is completely accurate. The sunflower has been used worldwide for a variety of reasons and its contribution to mankind's wellbeing is often understated. It has an interesting history that can only add to its current popularity.

The history of the sunflower begins in the Americas, the land to which it is indigenous. The native Indian cultures revered the sunflower - the Incan sunflower was used as a symbol for their sun god and Olmec (Ancient Mexicans) sunflower rituals and temple sculptures are well documented, but perhaps the greatest use of the sunflower was by the Native American Indians.

Archeological evidence has shown that the Native Americans considered the sunflower a special crop and used it abundantly - as far back as 2300BC. The Native Americans formed very close bonds with the earth and all of the abundances arising from it - and the sunflower was considered among the most important of the crops. Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hiditsa Tribe member born in 1839, tells of the importance of the sunflower and described many rituals based around the plant. She also states that the Native Americans believed singing to the sunflower would help it grow.

To the Native Americans, the sunflower symbolized strength and endurance, and was a prominent feature in their ceremonies. The Lakota Indians, during their Sun Dance Ceremony, would wear medallions in the shape of a sunflower head as they danced during the ceremonial event. The Hopi put sunflowers in their hair and commemorated their ceremonies by drawing pictures of sunflowers in their lodges and kivas.

The Native American warriors also used rolled sunflower balls as "iron rations" on war marches - being away from home, the nourishment offered by these ancient iron rations apparently "...invigorated the body before battle..."

When the first Europeans came to America, they completely disregarded the sunflower - preferring traditional crops such as corn, wheat and rye to the sunflower - terming the sunflower as too difficult to harvest when compared to the standard fare, thus leading to gardening books largely ignoring the sunflower.

Not being used as a cash crop in North America, the reception in Western Europe was lukewarm to say the least. However, when Peter the Great of Russia saw the plant in full bloom - he was enchanted by it and brought seeds to his native country. The sunflower quickly grew in popularity and was widely consumed as a snack. The 1700's saw the flower become an important crop and was widely used for oil production and the seeds for disease resistance.

The re-introduction of sunflowers to America happened in the 1870's with the influx of the Mennonites into Canada. They sold their giant Russian-developed sunflower seeds to seed companies in the United States during the 1880's. It only became a major crop when seeds from a Russian-developed strain that produced 50% oil (twice as much as normal strains) were introduced onto the market in the 1970's. Since that time, sunflowers have become the second largest oil crop in the world, just behind the soybean. It is the state flower of Kansas, the Vegan Society has chosen the sunflower as its symbol due to its many healing and nutritional properties and it is the symbol of the Green Party. The sunflower is now more popular than ever before.

The sunflower has had an interesting history and is now set to have a large impact on food production. Recently, scientists have found a protein in sunflower seeds than could potentially change the food processing industry. This protein acts an emulsifier - a chemical which bonds water and oil - which is widely used in the food processing industry (in such products as ice cream, sauces and margarine) and is currently dominated by dairy based emulsifiers.

The introduction of a sunflower based emulsifier could possibly lead to foods that are completely dairy-free and will help many people who are suffering from lactose intolerance. This will only add to its already formidable list of health benefits and will truly enshrine it as one of nature's most amazing plants.
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