Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done;
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go!

"Ah Sunflower" by the English poet William Blake (1757-1827)

The sunflower is one of the miracles of the plant kingdom. In a few months a small seed can produce a sturdy stem about 3 meters tall, an abundance of leaves and a glorious yellow flower. Moreover, the flower turns to follow the sun ( "himawari" means "sun-turn.") It is also impressive to consider that a "single" flower is actually a neat composite of hundreds. The outer rays are formed from flowers with a single, very large petal (called "ray florets"), while the inner disk is a cluster of small flowers with no petals at all (called "tube florets"). Each one of these miniature flowers can produce a seed, so by autumn a ripe sunflower is bursting with riches. Wild birds, especially finches, love to eat the oil-rich seeds in our gardens, though sunflowers are also grown commercially in many countries, especially the United States and Russia, for their edible seeds and oil. The plant (Helianthus annuus) originates from North America, where the Native Americans grew them as a food crop for thousands of years. From there, sunflowers spread to South America, where they were revered as a symbol of the Sun God. The first sunflowers to reach Europe arrived at the Madrid Botanic Garden in 1510, where they caused a sensation. Europeans had never seen such large flowers, and one overexcited observer described plants growing over 10 meters tall! If you want to get children interested in gardening, why not give them some little striped sunflower seeds, and encourage them to grow some giants of their own?