Everything you Need to Know about Sunflower Meaning, Symbolism, Colors, Origins, Growing and Care Tips.
Nothing says summer quite like a bouquet of sunflowers. Whether they’re your favorite flower to receive as a gift or you love to plant sunflowers in your garden, these majestic flowers have an incredible story to tell. Sunflowers aren’t just those stunning flowers with towering stems that come in a wide range of varieties. They’re also used agriculturally for their seeds and oil and are highly attractive to bees. Plus, sunflowers have deep historical roots and strong cultural ties all around the world. Here we’ll take you through everything you need to know about sunflower meaning & symbolism, their history & origins, as well as our top tips to grow and care for sunflowers at home.
The Sunflower – Origins and History
Sunflowers originated in the Americas and were first domesticated in present-day Mexico as well as in what’s now the Southern US dating back to 2100 BCE.
Once Europeans reached the ‘New World,’ sunflowers were brought back to their countries and gained worldwide popularity.
Sunflowers come up in ancient Greek mythology and its species name is derived from the Greek language: Helioanthus with helios meaning sun and anthos meaning flower.
Historically, sunflowers have been used in Incan religious ceremonies, as medicine among Native American tribes, and as the focal point of iconic artworks throughout Europe and Asia.
Botanical Characteristics of Sunflowers
Sunflowers are part of the Helianthus genus which is made up of 70 species of plants. All but three Helianthus species are native to North America and Central America. Helianthus annuus is the species we know as common sunflowers.
Fun Fact: Technically, sunflowers are thousands of tiny flowers all blooming together to create what we know as a single sunflower.
Sunflowers typically grow in the summer and early fall, peaking in mid-summer. Sunflowers grow in a wide range of colors and sizes. But most commonly, they grow with bright yellow florets the emulate the sun and a flower head that “follows” the sun.
Most Popular Types of Sunflowers
The Helianthus annuus is the most popular species of the sunflower which can grow in giant, dwarf, and colored varieties.
The most popular types of sunflowers include:
Giant Sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus)
The Giant Sunflower is native to the United States and parts of Canada and grow up to 13 feet in height. Common varieties include:
- Sunforest Mix
- American Giant
- Russian Mammoth
- Schweinitz’s Sunflower
Dwarf Sunflowers (Helianthella parryi)
The Dwarf Sunflower is native to southwestern parts of the United States and is commonly found in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. It typically grows to approximately 20″ tall. Common varieties include:
- Sundance Kid
- Little Becka
- Suntastic Yellow
- Sunny Smile
Annual sunflowers have been specially bred to produce a range of different colors. Common varieties include:
- Ms. Mars
- Moulin Rouge
Sunflower Uses & Benefits
Originally, sunflowers were cultivated by Native American tribes for use in medicines and for food.
Medicinally, sunflowers were used by extracting juices from the sunflower stem to treat open wounds as well as by infusing sunflowers in water to drink for kidney treatments and chest pain.
Although sunflowers are no longer used as a medicine, they are still cultivated on a large scale for agricultural purposes to be used as food and in cosmetics. Plus, sunflowers themselves are often for sale by florists and are commonly used for gift-giving.
There are two types of sunflowers that continue to be grown en masse. One is the oilseed type with its small black seeds and the other is the non-oil type producing larger seeds and a thicker hull (casing that surrounds the seed).
Some non-oil varieties of sunflower seeds are roasted and sold in grocery stores. Oilseed sunflower oil is commonly used for cooking and in beauty products.
Benefits of Eating Sunflowers:
- High in vitamin E and selenium
- Natural source of antioxidants
- Can potentially reduce inflammation
- May help prevent heart disease
- May reduce the risk of diabetes
Benefits of Sunflower Oil:
- Low in saturated fats
- Great for cooking at high temperatures
- Can be used to treat wounds
- Can be used as a topical anti-inflammatory for skin
- Non-comedogenic meaning it won’t clog pores
- High in vitamin E which can be beneficial for skin and hair
Sunflowers are also attractive to bees, especially wild bees, that can help a diverse habitat to flourish. Many gardeners and farmers are working to encourage the propagation of bees by growing more flowers for them to pollinate. So, to bring about more bees, they plant sunflowers.
Even if you have a farm full of other plants and flowers, many suggest planting one row of sunflowers per acre. Since they act as bee magnets, another important way sunflowers are used is that they can help save the bees.
Sunflower Meaning in Greek Mythology
The sunflower’s genus Helianthus comes from two ancient Greek words, ‘helios’ which refers to the sun, and ‘anthos’ meaning flower. There’s even a Greek myth surrounding sunflowers, explaining why they always face the sun.
The myth goes that Clytie, a nymph, adored Apollo and was jealous of Apollo’s new love for Leucothoe. When Clytie informed Leucothoe’s father of the relationship with Apollo, he buried Leucothoe alive as punishment.
Apollo, obviously angered by the ordeal, turned the buried Leuchothoe into a sunflower who continued to adore Apollo, even in flower form.
As a sunflower, she would watch Apollo as his chariot moved the sun across the sky each day, in the same way that sunflowers keep their faces toward the sun.
Coming from this myth of Clytie, Apollo, and Leucothoe, the most common sunflower meaning includes adoration, loyalty, and longevity. Therefore, sunflowers make popular and well-received gifts for loved ones and friends.
Other Popular Sunflower Meaning:
- In Chinese culture, sunflowers signify long life, good fortune, and vitality.
- In Native American tribes, sunflowers meant harvest, bounty, provision since they provided seeds and bright pigments.
- Third Wedding Anniversaries, sunflowers are a traditional gift to express adoration, loyalty, and longevity.
Sunflower Symbolism & Colors
Sunflowers are symbolic of the sun, hence their name is rather fitting. Most commonly, sunflowers have bright yellow petals, reminiscent of the sun. And like the sun, sunflowers most often symbolize happiness and joy.
As sunflowers made their way to Europe, their popularity grew, becoming a symbol of beauty and sustenance.
Sunflower Meaning & Symbolism in Art & Literature
In particular, artists seemed to revel in the uniqueness and splendor of sunflowers and they began to appear in many artworks of the Impressionist and Expressionist era.
Notably, Van Gogh’s sunflower series is an iconic collection of art that symbolizes birth, life, and death in stunning depictions of the phases of multiple bouquets of sunflowers.
Ai Wei Wei is another artist also inspired by sunflowers which were depicted in his Sunflower Seeds exhibit at the Tate Modern in London.
The Chinese artist used sunflowers to make a statement about the relationship between the individual and the masses, with millions of porcelain sunflower seeds handcrafted for the installation.
Religious and Cultural Sunflower Meaning & Symbolism
Some American sunflowers were also considered religious symbols, perhaps due to their heliocentric nature as they naturally were always facing the sun. Therefore, sunflowers often represent worship and faithfulness associated with the desire to seek out light and, in turn, truth.
The Incas of the Andean region of South America even used sunflowers to symbolize their Sun God. It’s said that the Incas would bring sunflowers to the temples for worship and the priestesses would adorn sunflowers to their clothes and headdresses.
Colors have a lot to do with symbolism as well. The yellow petals of most sunflowers symbolize intelligence, vitality, friendship, and happiness.
How to Grow Sunflowers
Whether you’d like to grow sunflowers in your backyard, in your patio garden, or keep a few bouquets indoors, here are some tips on how to grow sunflowers:
What to Do Before Planting Sunflowers
Before you plant your sunflowers, be sure it’s a good time to do so. The spring and summer seasons are the best times to plant sunflowers since the soil will be warming up and more conducive to sunflower blossoms.
You’ll also want to enrich the soil with compost and use a pitchfork to loosen up any tightly packed soil before planting sunflowers.
How to Plant Sunflowers
Sunflowers can be planted either in a flower pot or planter or also outdoors in a garden bed. Sunflower seeds should be sewn at least 25 inches (60 cm) apart and ¾ inches (2 cm) deep.
Avoid planting sunflowers next to potatoes or beans which can exude toxins in the soil. However, sunflowers will manage well planted next to cucumbers, melons, sweetcorn, squash, and other flowers.
What’s the Best Soil Mix for Sunflowers?
Sunflowers grow best in loose, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.5. However, sunflowers are strong flowers and, with enough care, will do well in most soil mixes.
Light Preferences of Sunflowers
The most important part of growing sunflowers is making sure they’re planted in an area that receives six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day.
How Big Will Sunflowers Grow?
Sunflowers range widely in size. Dwarf species often grow less than three feet (one meter) tall whereas giants can grow over 16 feet (5 meters) tall with flower heads up to 1.5 feet (50 cm) wide.
For the most part, any dwarf species will be best for planting in a home garden whereas giants need a lot more space and often planted on farms.
Do Sunflowers Really Follow the Sun?
It’s true. Young sunflowers do “follow” the sun. The parts of the flower head that need the most sunlight will aim itself directly at the sun, while parts of the stalk the are more sensitive to sunlight are shielded appropriately.
How to Care for Sunflowers
Once you’ve planted your sunflowers, here are a few tips to properly care for them:
Sunflower Watering and Feeding Preferences
Sunflowers prefer regular watering that reaches deep into the soil. It’s ideal to water sunflowers in the morning to prevent root rot which can set in during colder nights. Sunflowers also enjoy liquid fertilizer every two or three weeks.
Sunflower Pest and Disease Considerations
Laying down mulch around your sunflower garden can keep weeds from emerging. Mulch also helps keep the soil moist.
Snails and slugs can also present a problem for sunflowers as they enjoy eating young sunflower seedlings. So, snail and slug pellets should be spread around the garden in the first few weeks of growth.
Essential Tools to Care for Sunflowers
General gardening tools will be important in caring for sunflowers in your backyard or garden, but these are a few essential tools you may not have considered:
- Stakes, to help hold up heavy sunflower stalks and protect them from high winds
- Mulch, which can be used to keep the soil moist and prevent weeds
- Bird Netting, to protect your sunflowers if birds present a problem in your area
Attracting Bees with Sunflowers
As previously mentioned, sunflowers are highly attractive to bees. Encouraging bees to pollinate your flowers can be incredibly beneficial to the surrounding habitat.
To make your sunflower garden or farm even more attractive to bees, you’ll want to avoid pesticides and create nesting areas for bees to build their home.
In your backyard, you might even consider investing in a beehive with the plus side of fresh honey.
Bees are so important to our ecosystem and, therefore, sunflowers are important as well.
Final Thoughts on Sunflowers
Overall, sunflowers are more than just glorious yellow petals that make joyful gifts.
In the past, they were used as symbols of worship and devotion, and even today, signify loyalty, long-life, and adoration. They’ve bled into our cultural world as the main feature of iconic works of art and they’re the perfect gift for friends and family.
Sunflower seeds are used for food and sunflower oil in cooking and beauty products. Sunflowers also attract the bees and are amazing for your local habitat.
Whether they’re growing in your backyard or in your indoor garden, sunflowers are a beautiful way to welcome the summer.